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June Wong So-kwan picks up plastic waste on Hong Kong’s beaches, but is the city doing enough to reduce the amount of plastic that washes into the ocean? Photo: Jonathan Wong

Is Hong Kong doing enough to limit plastic pollution? Supermarkets and other food vendors are slow to reduce single-use plastic use, and alternatives can’t compete

  • Most of the plastic rubbish that turns up or washes up on Hong Kong beaches ‘is what you can usually find in the supermarket’, a clean-up volunteer says
  • The coronavirus pandemic spurred use of single-use plastics, and while some businesses have acted, only small steps towards banning them have been taken
Sian Powell

June Wong So-kwan picks up plastic takeaway cups and boxes, bottles, wrappers and containers on her regular rubbish collection trips to Hong Kong’s beaches.

“When I do beach clean-ups in Hong Kong, I find a lot of these kinds of wrappers, the prepack containers,” she says. “This is what you can usually find in the supermarket. I think it’s a very big issue.”

One of many volunteers who patrol the coast in their spare time, the manager for marine pollution at WWF-HK collects the trash in an attempt to keep the city’s beaches clean and to prevent plastic rubbish from floating out to sea. It’s a never-ending task.

Almost everything in Hong Kong’s two dominant supermarket chains, Wellcome and ParknShop – which together have hundreds of outlets as well as online grocery delivery services – is packed, boxed, wrapped or double-wrapped in single-use plastic.
Wong collects rubbish from a beach near WWF Island House in Tai Po, in Hong Kong’s New Territories. Photo: Jonathan Wong

Some of the plastic seems entirely redundant: toilet rolls are individually wrapped and sold with other rolls in a larger bag, boxes of canned drinks are wrapped in plastic, and vegetables and fruit are packaged in boxes or bags.

Despite persistent complaints from the environmental lobby, the supermarket titans have done little to rein in their appetite for single-use plastic. Wellcome did not respond to repeated queries, but a spokeswoman for ParknShop says steps are being taken; she added, however, that the safety, functionality and affordability of packaging had to be considered.

China unveils sweeping plan to reduce single-use plastic by 2025

Most of the ParknShop plans she outlines, though, will take many years to come into effect. The only short-term plan is to phase out expanded polystyrene (EPS) by next year.

Over the longer term, ParknShop will possibly extend a trial of plastic-packaging-free fruit and vegetables; reduce single-use plastic items by half, reduce plastic carrier bag use by 30 per cent, and expand the number of refill stations in supermarkets – all by 2030.

“Irrespective of the government’s plans, we are constantly reviewing possible initiatives to reduce plastic waste sent to landfill,” the ParknShop spokeswoman says.

Six bottles of lemon tea inside a plastic bag at Wellcome. Photo: SCMP

Meanwhile, an Environmental Protection Department (EPD) spokesman says Hong Kong’s Council for Sustainable Development at some point in the future will engage the public on the issue of plastic packaging.

“The government has invited the Council for Sustainable Development to launch a public engagement to collect views from the public on the means, scope and priorities of control, as well as the relevant timetable,” he says.

Most of the plastic rubbish in the world’s rivers and oceans comes from grocery shopping or takeaway dining. Twelve million pieces of rubbish were categorised for a study published in June. Roughly 80 per cent of the surveyed marine rubbish was plastic.

Discarded plastic water bottles on a beach in Lung Ha Wan, Hong Kong. Photo: EPA
Published in Nature Sustainability, the analysis found that within that massive plastic grouping, the No 1 category was plastic bags, followed by plastic bottles, then plastic food containers and cutlery, and then plastic wrappers.

Lead author Dr Carmen Morales from the University of Cadiz in Spain says a lot of work needs to be done around the world to limit plastic waste.

“We can see some small steps, but sometimes these don’t address the core of the problem,” the research scientist says. “Consumers need to be informed and be able to choose.”

Wong collects rubbish from a beach. ‘Plastic is still too cheap and too convenient,’ she says. Photo: Jonathan Wong

She warns that false claims of environmental benefits are a widespread problem. “Greenwashing is all over the place, and creates a lot of confusion.”

Nations around the world are taking legislative steps to reduce the amount of plastic that washes into the ocean. Japan has announced that from April 2022, businesses will be forced to cut down on the provision of 12 plastic disposable items, including spoons and straws, to tackle marine pollution.

In Hong Kong, a two-month government public consultation proposing a ban on “disposable plastic tableware” ended in September and received more than 8,000 submissions. “The proposal was generally well received by the community,” says an EPD spokesman.
Plastic-wrapped produce in a supermarket in Causeway Bay. Photo: Tory Ho

The consultation encompassed many of those plastic bits and pieces that travel from restaurants to beaches, rivers and the oceans. Single-use plastic plates, straws, stirrers, cutlery, plates, cups and lids, food containers and covers will eventually be regulated under the proposed scheme.

Phase one of the scheme, covering only EPS tableware, is not expected to begin until 2025.

WWF will use the trigger of the tableware consultation to educate restaurateurs and restaurant chains on the importance of cutting back on single-use plastics.

No matter what other materials we are trying to compete with in the market, we can’t compete with plastic
Devana Ng, Invisible Company co-founder

“We will give talks to the restaurants so they can understand more how serious the problem is,” Wong says. “The restaurants have to know about the consultation; what they are going to face in maybe a few years.”

“Plastic is still too cheap and too convenient,” she adds, noting the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent rise in demand for food in disposable containers had been a setback in the fight to reduce single-use plastics.
A further public discussion on Hong Kong’s long-standing 50 cent levy on single-use plastic bags for anything other than food or drinks is also expected soon. The levy is a negligible cost for many, Wong says, so WWF is helping to run a survey to work out how high a charge would have to be to deter shoppers.

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Results will be released by early October.

Plastic bags are routinely provided automatically in Hong Kong’s wet markets and local food outlets unless customers refuse them.

“It would be good if sales assistants had a message for those who don’t use plastic bags; something like ‘thanks for helping the environment’,” says Wong.

A bakery in Kowloon Tong uses plastic to wrap each individual bun. Photo: May Tse
Meanwhile, WWF has developed partnerships with takeaway food delivery firms such as Foodpanda and Deliveroo. “They have some influence, they can have alternative or sustainable choices or advice for their vendors,” Wong says. The delivery firms are selling sustainable tableware to restaurants and cafes, and considering the idea of a sustainable restaurant certification, she adds.

Some larger food and drink chains are forging their own way. The Starbucks coffee chain says it has introduced wooden cutlery and reusable cold-drink cups in 850 outlets in Shanghai, and will roll them out to stores across China by the end of 2021. The brand will also offer discounts to customers who bring in their own cups.

In Hong Kong, Starbucks has introduced biodegradable paper straws and wooden stirrers, as well as biodegradable plastic utensils and salad boxes.

Wong says WWF has developed partnerships with takeaway food delivery firms like Foodpanda and Deliveroo to minimise plastic use. Photo: Jonathan Wong

Sustainable bag and packaging companies sprang up in Hong Kong to supply the burgeoning demand for alternatives to single-use plastics.

These organisations have to grapple with the reality that plastic bags, containers and packaging are nearly always far cheaper than their alternatives. It seems that, unless steps are taken to subsidise biodegradables or to force the business world to cut down on plastic consumption, change is unlikely.

“Plastic has been in the market for so many years and we can’t deny the fact that plastic is very convenient and very useful,” says Devana Ng, co-founder of the Invisible Company, which sells single-use bags made from polyvinyl alcohol – which disappear in boiling water.

“The price of plastic is very, very cheap,” she says. “No matter what other materials we are trying to compete with in the market, we can’t compete with plastic.”