Reducing plastic pollution at source

May 30, 2022 06:00
Photo: Hong Kong Government

The fifth wave of COVID-19 epidemic in Hong Kong has been severe. In order to curb the spread of the epidemic, the government adopted stricter anti-epidemic measures, including banning dining in restaurants after 6:00p.m., leading to a surge in demand for takeaways, resulting in a significant increase of disposable plastic tableware.

The quantity of disposable plastic tableware waste in Hong Kong has always been astonishing. According to the Hong Kong Solid Waste Monitoring Report released by the Environmental Protection Department, the average daily disposal of plastic waste in 2020 was about 2,312 tonnes, accounting for about 21% of municipal solid waste disposed at landfills. About 14.6 billion pieces of plastic cutlery set are discarded every year, representing about 1,940 pieces per person. It is estimated that in 2020, the daily disposal of disposable plastic tableware has increased more than 30% compared with 2019.

Plastic waste such as disposable plastic tableware is the main source of ocean and environmental pollution, seriously damaging the natural ecosystem, affecting human food chain and endangering human health.

Even worse is that microplastic pollution has been detected in human blood in recent studies. The tiny particles were found in almost 80% of the people tested. Researchers believed that the particles can travel around the body and may lodge in organs. Though the impact on health is still unknown, the concerns of microplastics causing damage to human cells need to be addressed.

To reduce plastic waste, the Hong Kong government has actively promoted recycling in recent years, the quantity of plastic recyclables recycled rose from 8% or 74,400 tonnes in 2019 to 11% or 94,700 tonnes in 2020, amounting to only 10% of the total plastic waste.

And even if the plastic material can be recycled, the return from plastic recycling cannot offset the high processing cost, so many plastic waste collected from recycling bins ended up in landfills. Furthermore, most plastic materials are extremely difficult to decompose naturally which may take as long as hundreds of years. Among them, it takes up to 10,000 years to decompose expanded polystyrene (EPS) lunch boxes which are commonly used in takeaways.

While it is difficult to decompose traditional disposable plastic tableware, many people started to explore more easily degradable and sustainable materials for making tableware. A Mexican company converted avocado pits to bioplastic tableware which looks no different from commonly used disposable tableware, only that it is claimed to decompose completely within 240 days. Another example, a company headquartered in Amsterdam, the Netherlands uses renewable and sustainable chemistry to develop a "vegetable plastic" bottle that can degrade quickly within one year. The product is expected to be launched in 2030. This vegetable plastic bottle is made of PEF (Polyethylene Furanoate), which is produced from plant sugars extracted from corn, wheat or beet.

You may cast doubt over how scalable these products can be and the impact they may make. Well, when the beverage company Coca-Cola Company announced in February this year a goal to have at least 25% of its beverages sold globally using refillable/returnable glass or plastic bottles by 2030, you should feel more confident about the sustainable future, at least for these pre-packed beverages. This commitment to create a legally binding global treaty on plastic pollution was signed at the United Nations Environmental Assembly in Nairobi recently.

For the time being, though, the most sustainable and feasible measure to reduce plastic waste is reduction at source. In July last year, the Hong Kong government launched a two-month public consultation on the control of disposable plastic tableware. It is recommended to introduce legislation in phases to regulate disposable plastic tableware and EPS tableware by 2025. The ban covers the provision of disposable plastic tableware in catering premises to customers, as well as the local sale of disposable plastic tableware, so as to reduce the use of disposable plastic tableware at source.

I strongly support the recommendation. But before the policy is implemented, we should put more efforts into education and publicity of environmental protection, aiming to cultivate green habits as early as possible, and encouraging people to bring their own reusable tableware in their daily life. In this way, the implementation of the policy will naturally gain the support of the public, and the problem of plastic waste in Hong Kong can be eased as soon as possible.

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Adjunct Professor, Department of Computer Science, Faculty of Engineering; Department of Geography, Faculty of Social Sciences; and Faculty of Architecture, The University of Hong Kong