Hong Kong throws away 5.2 million bottles every single day – is it time to ban sale of the plastic disposables?
With landfills under pressure, beaches awash with litter and many residents oblivious to the problem, experts say Hongkongers need to wise up
When Typhoon Hato hit Hong Kong in August, an ugly side of the city surfaced. Huge amounts of plastic – bottles included – were carried by the strong winds and high tides from the ocean to beaches and harbourfronts, shedding light on the city’s dependence on plastic and its shameful recycling efforts.
Environmentalists called for a citywide ban on the sale of disposable plastic bottled water, warning that if Hongkongers continued to throw away millions of these items every day, landfills would quickly fill up and harmful pollutants would seriously affect public health.
“Hong Kong’s marine litter problem is quite serious, especially at remote beaches which people seldom visit and clean up, ” said Patrick Yeung Chung-wing, a project manager for ocean conservation at WWF Hong Kong.
“The worst case recorded in Hong Kong was at Lap Sap Wan where we estimated 185 tonnes of marine litter was gathered on the pebble beach in 2015,” he said. “About 80 per cent of our marine litter is plastic, especially disposable products such as plastic bottles, plastic bags and packaging material.”
Yeung pointed out that most of this waste was from local sources such as household and marine recreational activities.
In the past few years the problem has been “getting very serious around July and August,” said Edwin Lau Che-feng, the founder and executive director of local environmental group Green Earth, as waste is carried in from the Pearl River Delta.
In the summer wet season, southwestern monsoon winds and heavy rainfall mean marine litter is mainly concentrated on beaches on the western and southern sides of Hong Kong. In the dry season, eastern or northeastern monsoon winds carry waste to beaches facing east or north.
It had been hard to estimate how soon beaches would no longer be fit for public use during the summer months, Lau said, but if plastic waste continued to pile up at current rates there could be too much for beach cleaners to handle, leaving beachgoers sinking in litter.
The waste also severely affects Hong Kong’s marine life.
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“Marine animals may mistake plastic waste as food and ingest it together with pollutants absorbed by the plastic, causing harm to their health,” Yeung said.
“The marine environment provides a lot of ecosystem services to us including food, oxygen and other important resources, so we can’t sit and watch,” he said. “Microplastics are also found in tap water around the world, which implies that the plastic pollution we are generating is returning to us.”
Last year, Green Earth estimated 5.2 million plastic bottles were dumped in Hong Kong every day, more than enough to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool. They weighed 136 tonnes – 900 times the weight of an adult panda bear.
If these bottles were stacked on top of one another, they would measure over 2,200 times the height of Hong Kong’s tallest skyscraper, the International Commerce Centre, which is the world’s ninth tallest building.
Green Earth estimated that since 2008, Hongkongers had thrown away more than 12 billion plastic bottles, which if placed end to end would circle the globe 58 times.
Most of these bottles, according to the group, end up in the three landfills in the New Territories, which are being expanded to cope with the city’s waste.
“When bottles are buried in landfills, they are packed in a nearly dead environment,” Lau said. “That means no air, no sunlight, no water, so under such conditions it is much harder for bottles to decompose.”
Lau said it could take at least 70 years to completely decompose a 500ml plastic bottle – the most commonly sold size in Hong Kong – leaving toxic components in the environment afterwards.
The producers of local bottled water Bonaqua and Watsons Water said they had changed their bottle packaging to a recyclable material called PET (polyethylene terephthalate) and rPET (recycled PET).
Despite this, government figures show the recycling rate for plastics has been declining. In 2015, just 11 per cent of plastic waste was recycled compared to 32 per cent in 2012.
That was due to “fluctuations in the local recycling business and the declining recovery rate for waste plastics, including weak demand for raw plastic materials by the mainland Chinese manufacturing sector, stricter controls imposed by mainland authorities on the import of plastic recyclables and a continuing decline in crude oil feedstock prices in the past few years”, the Environmental Protection Department (EPD) wrote in a document last December.
According to Yeung, Hong Kong has been producing more waste each year for the past decade, showing the failure of the government to motivate people to recycle.
“The best approach to waste management starts with avoidance,” said Lau, who supports a ban on the sale of disposable plastic bottled water.
In July, the University of Hong Kong banned all single-use plastic bottles containing one litre or less from shops, restaurants, offices and vending machines on its Pok Fu Lam campus. The ban aims to encourage its 30,000 students and 7,000 staff to use fewer disposable items and thereby reduce waste.
City University will soon follow suit as it has recently seen a push to ban bottled water on its campus in Kowloon Tong, atmospheric science chair professor Johnny Chan told a recent event on how to create a more sustainable world.
HKU’s assistant sustainability manager, Joy Lam, said their campaign had been “quite successful” and she hoped the plan could be expanded beyond the campus. She said the university was still assessing the impact of the ban on bottle numbers.
“We have received a lot of support from both staff and students,” she said. “We have noticed that there are far fewer disposable water bottles around campus and more people are carrying reusable ones and using our 70 free water dispensers.
“We hope this movement to reduce disposable waste will continue in Hong Kong and go beyond.”
Echoing Lam’s views, Lau urged the government to “seriously consider” a citywide ban.
“The government is a much bigger set-up in society and its policy will have greater implications across many departments, so they will probably face more opposition. But if the government can offer alternatives to bottled water, such as water dispensers in more locations and promote the ‘bring your own bottle’ idea, then it will work,” Lau said.
The EPD said it was “committed to avoiding single-use disposable items and purchasing products with greater durability and improved recyclability”.
Last week the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department announced that all rubbish bins would be removed from country parks by December to encourage hikers to take their rubbish home. A trial scheme on 11 selected trails showed that nine recorded a reduction of between 33 and 89 per cent in the amount of litter collected, the department said in a report.
The EPD is considering a producer responsibility scheme covering waste plastic bottles to promote proper recycling.
“If Hongkongers do not wake up to the huge environmental problem of plastic bottled waste and keep consuming it, then we are just helping to shorten the life of landfills and also wasting resources that could otherwise be recycled,” Lau said.
Hong Kong stands alongside Seoul, Tokyo and Taipei as the city with the highest disposal of waste per capita, according to Lau.
“We will be laughed at by other cities” if we did not come up with a plan to tackle the problem, he said. “It is not a good thing to be known for.”
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CITIES THAT BAN SINGLE-USE PLASTIC BOTTLES
Bottled water consumption pattern: Some 5.3 million Australians drank bottled water in any given seven days in 2015, according to market research company Roy Morgan Research. That was more than that of 4.9 million in 2014. Bottled water consumption is most widespread in Western Australia, where 30.2 per cent of residents drink, followed by New South Wales on 29 per cent. Tasmanians are below average at 22.3 per cent.
Action against the sale of bottled water: Bundanoon, a rural town in New South Wales, banned the sale of bottled water in 2009. It is so far the only town in the country to have outlawed bottled water and was the first in the world to have such a ban. The Guardian newspaper reported that 356 residents of the town voted for the ban, and only two voted against.
Bottled water consumption pattern: Americans drink more bottled water than carbonated drinks, according to research and consulting firm Beverage Marketing Corporation. The company said the country’s bottled water consumption reached 39.3 gallons per capita in 2016. That was slightly lower than carbonated soft drinks at 38.5 gallons. Last year the total volume rose 9 per cent, to 12.8 billion gallons, compared with a year earlier.
Action against the sale of bottled water: In 2009, Washington University in the eastern US city of St Louis became the first to ban the sale of plastic single-use water bottles.
In 2013, the town of Concord, in northeastern state Massachusetts, became the first in the United States to implement the same ban for bottles of one litre or less.
In 2014, San Francisco became the first city in the US to ban the sale and distribution of single-use bottled water on city-owned property. The ordinance, however, exempts sports events, and gives food trucks and some non-profit organisations time to comply with the ban before 2018.
Over 100 American cities have adopted measures to limit government spending on bottled water, according to The Guardian.
Bottled water consumption pattern: The consumption of bottled water is growing much faster than carbonated drinks in India, according to researcher Euromonitor International. Between March 2015 and the same month in 2016, bottled water sales grew 23-25 per cent – more than twice the rate of bottled sodas. India’s bottled water industry boomed in the 1990s due to advertising to convince consumers it was pure and healthy. It was valued at 60 billion rupees (HK$7 billion) in 2013 and is expected to grow to HK$19 billion by 2018, according to intelligence firm ValueNotes.
Action against the sale of bottled water: In 2015, the state of Bihar in eastern India banned the use of plastic bottled water in government meetings.
The state of Karnataka in southwestern India banned the use of all plastic in March last year. Since it came into effect, 39,000kg of illegal plastic has been seized from the state capital Bangalore.
The state of Sikkim in the northeast restricted the use of plastic bottled water at government functions and meetings. This year India’s National Green Tribunal passed a law banning all disposable plastic in the capital, Delhi, following complaints about the illegal mass burning of plastic at local rubbish dumps, which has been blamed for air pollution.
Some startling bottled water facts
● It takes 1.32 litres of water to produce one litre of bottled water
● The equivalent energy of 160 million barrels of oil is needed annually to produce the global bottled water demand – 2,000 times the energy needed for the same volume of tap water, and enough to keep the entire US going for over a week.
● Production of bottled water around the world pumps 20 million metric tonnes of greenhouse gas carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year – the same amount of CO2 needed to power 20 million homes for a month.
● Hong Kong throws away 5.2 million bottles a day.
● China’s consumption of bottled water makes up nearly a quarter of global demand.
● In 2015 consumers in China purchased 68.4 billion bottles of water – about 50 per person. This increased to 73.8 bottles per person in 2016, up by 5.4 billion.
● Last year 480 billion plastic drinking bottles were sold across the world – 65 bottles per person at the time – up from 300 billion a decade earlier. If placed end to end, this would reach halfway to the sun.
● One million plastic bottled drinks are bought around the world every minute.
● Fewer than half of the plastic bottled drinks bought in 2016 were collected for recycling, and only 7 per cent of those were turned into new bottles.
Additional reporting by Louise Moon