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Earth Day clean-up nets 3 tonnes of trash on Hong Kong beaches – and it’s mostly plastic items used just once

More than 1,500 people gathered in Sai Kung, Lamma Island, Discovery Bay, Tai Po, Central and Sham Tseng to collect rubbish

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 April, 2018, 8:24pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 April, 2018, 10:02pm

“End plastic pollution” was the rallying cry for this year’s international Earth Day.

But going by the 3,000kg of rubbish cleared from Hong Kong’s beaches on Sunday, the city does not look to be moving anywhere near that goal.

Items collected included plastic drink bottles, plastic wrappers, plastic packaging, plastic bags, children’s toys, cigarette lighters, and the like. Some of the rubbish had been lying there since Typhoon Hato last year.

“I would say about 80 per cent of what we picked up were plastic items that were only used once … and most of it was local,” said Dr Robert Lockyer, director of operations at the AquaMeridian Conservation and Education Foundation, one of the groups organising a major citywide beach clean-up.

More than 1,500 people took part in clean-ups in Sai Kung, Lamma Island, Discovery Bay, Tai Po, Central and Sham Tseng.

Held on April 22 every year since 1970 and observed by over 150 countries, Earth Day is dedicated to “providing the information and inspiration needed to fundamentally change human attitude and behaviour about plastics”, according to Earth Day Network, the organisation behind it.

Hong Kong should declare war on plastic to mark Earth Day

In Hong Kong, 86 per cent of plastic waste ends up in the tips, the countryside or in the surrounding waters as marine refuse. Plastics that end up in the ocean break down into tiny microplastics that can be eaten by fish and enter the marine food chain.

The Environmental Protection Department will this month launch a one-year study to examine the impact of microplastics on Hong Kong’s environment.

“But Earth Day is not just about cleaning beaches, it’s about taking the message everywhere you go, whether it’s at home or going shopping,” Lockyer said.

If government waste statistics are any indicator, the municipal waste problem appears to be worsening in Hong Kong – and plastics are playing a major role in that.

In 2016, the latest year for which statistics are available, 10,345 tonnes of municipal waste were sent to landfills every day, 1.8 per cent more than the year before, though mostly driven by the commercial sector rather than households. Of this daily mountain of waste, one-fifth or 2,132 tonnes, was plastic.

The recovery rate for plastics was just 14 per cent, slightly higher than the preceding year because of a rebound in oil prices, but still a major drop from the 26 per cent in 2013.

“Businesses and industry must bear more responsibility than the public,” Greenpeace campaigner Chan Hall-sion said. “Companies should be reducing excessive packaging.”

Customers, she added, could also take the initiative to reject plastics such as single-use cutlery from restaurants.

Two in three Hongkongers use plastic disposables for dining

A daily average of 154 tonnes of disposable plastic tableware was dumped in the city’s overflowing landfills in 2016 – a 23-tonne or 17.5 per cent increase from the previous year, data shows.

“Public awareness of the environmental problems that plastics pose is better now, but in terms of practical actions like using less or practising clean recycling, there really hasn’t been much improvement,” said Edwin Lau Che-feng, executive director of environmental group The Green Earth.

While the Environment Bureau set a goal in 2013 to reduce the amount of municipal waste by 20 per cent by 2017 and 40 per cent by 2022, green groups have lost all hope of the government being able to make good on these objectives.

“We are almost 99 per cent sure the 2017 target will not be met,” Lau said. “It’s a bit disappointing that the government could not even move waste disposal volumes closer to the target. Instead, it has been widening. Political parties need to take them to task and hold them accountable.”

Hong Kong throws away 5.2 million bottles every single day

Lau said he was not pinning his hopes on the government being able to implement a citywide waste charging scheme by the end of 2019 as planned either – the draft bill has yet to be tabled at the Legislative Council this term.

“As we move closer to the [district council and Legislative Council] elections, this will be more difficult to push,” he said.

The department is preparing to begin a pilot scheme on district central collection of waste plastic bottles, with an eye on implementing it progressively over 2018-19.