We use lots of plastic every single day in Hong Kong – and we throw away just as much every single day, too. How hard can it be to go one week without using any at all?
Hong Kong’s plastic-strewn beaches and streets are an all-too familiar sight for us. The synthetic material is not easy to avoid – we see it used for everything; from bottles, to takeaway cutlery, to shopping bags.
In some cases, plastic brings us clear benefits – for instance, in advances in domestic pipes. However, for most consumers it is an efficient and cheap mainstay of convenience.
Our use of plastic has brought devastating consequences to our oceans and wildlife. Per the Environmental Protection Department, more than 2,000 tonnes of plastic is discarded everyday in Hong Kong due to the lack of recycling initiatives.
With just a few industries actively working to reduce the amount of plastic they produce, the responsibility must fall on us – the consumers – to find alternatives.
I decided to go plastic free for a week, to see whether it is a possible feat to achieve in Hong Kong. This is what happened.
I buy vegetables and fruit from the local wet market – a cheaper and fresher alternative to pre-packaged produce found in most supermarkets – and switch to the neighbourhood’s independent butcher for meat and seafood. Surely these shops will embrace paper bags instead?
Sadly, here too, plastic is the default. I flatly refuse any offerings of plastic bags, and ask the butcher to wrap my produce in paper instead. This sends him on a witch-hunt behind the counter, but he finally finds what I ask for, and all is well.
“This isn’t so hard,” I proudly say to myself, as I pack my paper-wrapped, plastic-free items inside my reusable cloth bag.
But my positive attitude doesn’t last very long. When I get home, I discover little stickers on most of the fruit and vegetables. An unnecessary – and almost unnoticable – item of plastic that must be disposed of.
I stop by Starbucks for a coffee and a muffin. The lady behind the counter happily pours my latte into the reusable flask I am carrying around. But as she places my muffin into a bag, panic sets in.
“No, stop!” I scream, much to the surprise of those waiting behind me.
I offer her my palm. “Just place it here,” I say. Her perplexed expression doesn’t go amiss.
There is a sense of accomplishment as I leave that Starbucks, but the sheer volume of disposed cups, plastic cutlery and straws in the bin makes me wonder if my effort is worth it.
We run out of toilet roll. Unfortunately, this means a dreaded trip to the supermarket.
With each roll individually wrapped in plastic, I try my best to find some sort of an alternative and send out a frantic plea to my friends.
They leap to my rescue, suggesting everything from a bidet to stealing an already opened roll from a restaurant. Neither are a viable option, and I end up purchasing the plastic-wrapped toilet roll. More waste to dispose of later.
I choose not to buy supermarket milk, as most cartons have plastic linings and lids. Instead, I get creative and make my own almond milk.
A simple internet search tells me that it’s fairly straightforward, so off I go.
Admittedly, it was easy to make – if you have a blender – but I’m not so convinced about the taste.
The novelty has worn off, and the inconvenience of dodging plastic is taking its toll. I can’t even buy Panadol during this winter’s flu season without feeling guilty.
It has become clear that shifting the responsibility of reducing plastic waste onto the consumers is not the solution. Without low cost and accessible alternatives, we end up getting complacent and give in to convenience.
Six days into the challenge, a zero waste store – the first of its kind in Hong Kong – opens in Sai Ying Pun.
Live Zero sells utensils, toiletries and food items from large barrels, and encourages customers to bring their own containers.
I am in a transport of delight and make my way there. A bamboo toothbrush, a shampoo stick, a stainless-steel straw. I’ll take three of each please!
I no longer see this as a challenge, but rather an attempt at a permanent lifestyle change. Going plastic-free is close to impossible in Hong Kong, but making small, conscious changes to our everyday lifestyle can go a long way.
Plastic was once considered a marvel, as it was cheap and brilliantly robust – so much so, that it is effectively non-degradable. My plastic-free week has forced me to examine how we consume this material, and has helped me understand the impact that we are leaving on the planet, and on each other.