Up to 90 per cent of Hong Kong’s small and medium plastic recyclers have closed their doors this year amid shrinking demand for their product, according to industry representatives, who are calling on the government to set up a better collection system for the city’s discarded plastic. Last October, the cost of virgin plastic became cheaper than its recycled counterpart by US$72 (HK$558) per tonne for the first time, following a historic drop in the price of oil, which is refined into the petrochemicals that make the synthetic material. That price disparity could continue into the foreseeable future, analysts say. Hong Kong’s recyclers, who rely on imported waste plastic to boost their production, said the cost of importing plastic now far exceeds the price they can get for their product in China – their only market – which has no rules requiring manufacturers to reuse plastics. “Nowadays, we can’t even recover the processing cost of up to HK$3,000 (US$387) per tonne of plastic,” said Wong Chor-ming, director of a small plastic recycling firm in Yuen Long. “And then the Covid-19 pandemic has made things worse.” Hong Kong’s recyclers have long faced operational hurdles, and a slowdown in manufacturing exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic has only compounded their troubles. Wong, who previously employed four people and was paying HK$80,000 a month for his factory space, is one of dozens of recyclers in the city who have been forced out of business. “Small and medium-sized recyclers, those operating out of warehouses and perhaps even the illegal operators, I would say 90 per cent have closed down since the beginning of this year,” said Allan Wong Wing-ho, vice-chairman of the Hong Kong Scrap Plastic Association. There are more than 200 registered plastic recyclers in the city, according to data from the Environmental Protection Department (EPD), including operators from mainland China who moved to Hong Kong following Beijing’s 2018 ban on importing plastic waste. Will city’s largest private recycling plant solve woes over plastic bottles waste? In addition to slumping prices and the ban, the recyclers’ difficulties are further compounded by the city’s weak waste management system and a looming international convention that would further limit the export of mixed, unrecyclable and contaminated plastic waste without the consent of importing countries by 2021. On its own, the city dumped more than 16,000 tonnes of waste, including more than 2,300 tonnes of plastic, every day in 2018, with just 30 per cent being recycled. Of that, 7 per cent was plastic, a rate that has been steadily decreasing since 2012, when 32 per cent of the material was recycled. That percentage decrease is due in part to the fact Hong Kong simply has more waste to deal with. With foreign government’s increasingly tightening controls on the import of plastic waste, former destinations for Hong Kong waste such as Thailand and Malaysia are increasingly unwilling to accept it. Opinion: Hong Kong’s shameful recycling efforts: the numbers don’t lie Despite the city’s dismal recycling rate in this area, Wong said government recycling centres have turned him away when approached about sourcing local waste plastics. “This has been a long-time problem. Existing plastic waste is not effectively collected, while those of us with factories are unable to collect the plastic,” he said. The Environmental Protection Department does have contractors, usually larger companies, who handle plastic waste collected from public bins. But private buildings handle their own recycling, and a recent investigation by a local news outlet found nine of 14 housing estates had sent plastic bottles ostensibly collected for recycling to landfills as falling prices meant recyclers were less willing to handle the waste. Wong, who is also the co-founder of Li & Wong Recycling, said his business had also been losing money due to the high cost of collecting local plastic waste. “It costs more than HK$10,000 per tonne for us to collect local plastic. In contrast, importing plastic is only about HK$500 per tonne,” he said. “The current situation is quite bad and needs to be taken seriously. People should not be placing recycling bins out if the collected waste is just thrown out in the end, it seriously erodes public trust in the system,” said the Hong Kong Scrap Plastic Association’s Wong. Plan to encourage paper recycling excludes new business models: industry members Hahn Chu Hon-keung, director of environmental advocacy at The Green Earth, warned that while the collapse of smaller recyclers, particularly those who had relied on imported waste, would not have a large impact on the city’s recycling scene, bigger firms would struggle to find enough plastic to recycle unless a proper network was established. “Particularly those operating in EcoPark, who can only handle local recycling would be hardest hit, and if they closed down, there might not be another company to take up the work,” Chu said, referring to the industrial estate for environmental industries in Tuen Mun. He added that several new recyclers set to begin operations by the end of this year would face trouble trying to collect enough plastic to maintain a business. Glass recycling in Hong Kong cannot succeed without popular support Chu and Wong both called on the government to quickly expand a trial plastic collection scheme to all of Hong Kong’s 18 districts. Under the scheme, contractors are hired to sort, shred, clean and melt the used plastics to produce regenerated materials or products for local or overseas markets. The trial scheme is currently planned for just three districts: Eastern District, Sha Tin and Kwun Tong. The one in Eastern District began in January, while the other two districts are expected to start in the third quarter. The Environmental Protection Department (EPD) has not revealed when it would roll out the trial elsewhere. Editorial: Much more must be done in recycling Meanwhile, a “producer pays” scheme that would make manufacturers for recycling the plastic bottles they make should also quickly be passed into law, Chu said. The EPD said a public consultation on the producer responsibility scheme would be held by the second half of the year. “We estimate the collection scheme should be able to boost collection rates by about 50 per cent and the producer responsibility scheme will increase it by 70 per cent, while also reducing the cost of collecting plastic,” Chu said. “The government absolutely has the responsibility to build a healthy recycling system rather than the piecemeal way it is handling things now.” To improve existing systems, the EPD said it would increase the types of waste collected by its community recycling network, which currently only collects plastic and glass bottles along with small electronic waste. It also said it would set up more collection points.