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Hong Kong environmental issues

‘Plastic attack’ protest in Hong Kong to target packaging for food in supermarkets that activists consider excessive

The plastic bag tax in Hong Kong hasn’t reduced the amount of packaging supermarkets use. An environmentalist is recruiting for a protest in which activists will buy produce in stores and remove its packaging at the checkout

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 June, 2018, 7:15pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 June, 2018, 3:19pm

Hong Kong environmental activists are preparing to demonstrate against the use of excessive plastic packaging on products in the city’s supermarkets.

Taking the lead from similar events staged across Europe and the United States, the group will gather at supermarkets across the city on June 24 to remove the wrapping from items they have bought, and leave the resulting rubbish at checkouts.

“Over the past several years in Hong Kong, and all over the world, people have become much more aware of the huge need to cut down on plastic waste,” says campaign organiser James Marlow-Smith, who is recruiting fellow activists for his “plastic attack” via Facebook.

“Hong Kong is running out of landfill. Steps are being taken by the government, but … putting a 50 cent levy on bags isn’t enough – especially as small produce bags, used for items like dairy and meat, aren’t included in the charge,” the environmentalist says.

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He says he is not calling for a ban on all plastics – rather the wraps, boxes and polystyrene often seen as packaging for fruit and vegetables.

“People see packaging and think it’s better quality or safer for them … I can understand bagging fruit and vegetables, but what’s the point in packaging individual carrots and apples in cling film and polystyrene?” Marlow-Smith says.

Although the demonstration will be the first organised event of its kind in Hong Kong, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s Asia director, Gary Stokes, gained attention online after staging a solo “trash the checkout” demonstration in February last year. The now-deleted video inspired Marlow-Smith to create a larger, higher profile event.

Marlow-Smith, who is from the UK but has lived in Hong Kong since 2015, explains that his awareness of plastic pollution and desire to campaign for change stemmed from becoming a vegan to minimise his lifestyle’s environmental impact. After organising his first beach clean-up in Tsuen Wan, in Hong Kong’s New Territories, on Earth Day in April, he turned his attention to supermarket demonstrations.

“I saw news about a plastic attack in a London supermarket. I wondered why it couldn’t happen here, too,” Marlow-Smith says. “I don’t want people to assume I’m a foreigner coming here and telling people what to do, but living here and seeing all that [waste], I feel I need to do something.”

I don’t want to cause any trouble for the staff who work in the stores or the managers, because it’s not their policies – it’s the CEOs and bosses who are the ones we want to hold accountable.
James Marlow-Smith, event organiser

The 25-year-old activist says the plan is to visit supermarkets in different areas of the city on the same day. Attendees will purchase a number of plastic-wrapped grocery items, before removing the packaging and leaving it at the checkout in a show of protest. Buyers will then either take the food home without the unnecessary packaging, or donate it to a local food bank or homeless charity.

As a result of increased pressure from consumers, a number of bars, cafes and restaurants have moved to provide more sustainable tableware options, such as paper or metal straws and biodegradable takeaway boxes. Hong Kong supermarket chain City’super became the subject of outrage last year when photos of a single Japanese strawberry packaged in a polystyrene sock on a bed of shredded paper inside a plastic box went viral worldwide.

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While countries such as the UK and Australia are moving to crack down on single-use plastic items, such as disposable straws, cups and ear swabbers, Hong Kong has been comparatively slow to implement similar legislation.

The latest government figures show that each day, the city sends 2,132 tonnes of plastic to landfill, with only seven per cent of disposed plastic being recycled. The government has taken action by removing small bottles of water from vending machines in government-run buildings and implementing a 50 cent charge on plastic shopping bags, but there are no laws that restrict single-use plastic.

Marlow-Smith’s event is an example of consumers taking matters into their own hands after becoming frustrated by a lack of action in the city. The Hong Kong-based Facebook group, a Letter a Day to Keep the Plastic Away, encourages members to email local food and drink shops to request more sustainable options, and post any responses they receive.

While many independently owned businesses respond favourably, supermarkets are among the most resistant to change, says Marlow-Smith, a member of A Letter a Day.

“Countless people [on the group] have sent emails to Wellcome, ParknShop and other chain supermarkets, but they get generic responses … saying it’s for hygiene reasons.”

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In response to an email sent in April to Fusion, whose parent company, Hutchison Whampoa, also owns ParknShop, inquiring about the supermarket’s plastic policy, Marlow-Smith received the following statement: “We are aware of the use of plastic wrapping at supermarkets and we have been trying to strike the right balance between food quality, food safety and environmental concerns. We have urged our suppliers to avoid unnecessary plastic packaging and explore environmentally [friendly] packaging materials.”

Although Marlow-Smith says he will email the supermarket chains he plans to target to let them know the date of the event and what will happen, he says he will withhold the location of the stores at which activists will demonstrate.

“I don’t want to cause any trouble for the staff who work in the stores or the managers, because it’s not their policies – it’s the CEOs and bosses who are the ones we want to hold accountable. They’re not getting the message; it’s important we take it to their doorstep,” he says.

However, supermarkets are only likely to bow to public pressure if enough consumers show they would prefer their produce without packaging, he says.

“It’s important to make sure consumers understand their decisions also influence the way stores supply products. I want to spread the message about being conscious of what you buy. We can make changes through how we spend.”