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Member of Greeners Action collect waste plastic in Kowloon Bay. Photo: Winson Wong

Planned consumer rebate for recycling plastic bottles in Hong Kong far too low, poll finds

  • An overwhelming majority of residents will take back empty containers if they get HK$1 for each one, according to survey
  • But the government is proposing just a 10 cent rebate under a scheme green groups say is misguided

More than 80 per cent of residents are willing to return plastic bottles for recycling if they receive HK$1 (12 US cents) for each container but only about 20 per cent will make the effort for the 10 cents the Hong Kong government intends to offer, a survey has found.

The findings underscore the challenge the government faces in reducing the city’s volume of trash, which included 1.55 billion plastic bottles being dumped in 2019 alone – roughly 200 for each person.

The poll of 1,008 residents, carried out by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute for five environmental groups last month, weighed attitudes towards two approaches to encouraging recycling.

One involves giving a rebate for each bottle, which the government endorses, and the other requires residents to pay a small extra fee when buying a container, with the surcharge returned when they bring them back for recycling, a scheme green groups prefer.

The survey found that 83 per cent of people would take bottles back if the amount offered was HK$1, while 71 per cent would do so under the deposit-return model.

But only 40 per cent would make the effort if 10 cents was offered, and only 21 per cent would take part in a deposit-return scheme at that price point.

“The HK$1 is an interesting psychological price point that most people find an acceptable incentive,” said institute head Robert Chung Ting-yiu.

“The results also demonstrated Hongkongers had a relatively high environmental awareness and were willing to recycle, provided the authorities made it convenient and attractive.”

Drink containers make up about 5 per cent of the city’s 2,320 tonnes of plastic waste dumped into landfills every day, of which about 4.7 per was recycled, according to 2019 figures.

To help tackle the problem, the government is planning to give consumers 10 cents for each returned plastic bottle, while requiring drinks suppliers to pay a 65 cent levy for each container under a “polluter pays” principle.

The public consultation period for the proposal, known as the Producer Responsibility Scheme on Plastic Beverage Containers, ends on May 21.

Although Chung admitted the results showed a higher preference for the rebate system, residents were more familiar with deposit and returns as such a scheme had long been used for recycling glass bottles.

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Environmental activists urged the government to adopt the latter model for plastic bottles to prevent retailers and manufacturers from passing the cost of the rebates onto consumers.

“Most retailers will refuse to offer up to a HK$1 rebate any way, so a deposit-return scheme is more attractive,” said Leo Wong Ka-chi, a project manager at NGO Greeners Action, which commissioned the survey along with Green Earth, Green Power, Green Sense and Greenpeace. “There is no extra cost to anyone in this model as long as people take responsibility and return their bottles.”

But Wong warned the government would have to better explain the differences between the rebate scheme and the deposit-return model to get residents on board.

“At the moment, they don’t even offer this as an option in the public consultation,” he said.

Polly Ma Ka-po, a senior project officer at Green Sense, also questioned the choice of a rebate scheme for plastic bottles.

“The deposit-return scheme for glass bottles increased the recycling rate to 90 per cent, so why not do the same for plastic?”

She also questioned whether a rebate scheme would be viewed by residents as a way to earn extra cash and lead to more people buying plastic bottled drinks.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Study finds HK$1 the price of returning plastic bottles