Creating a circular economy for plastics

May 21, 2019 13:18
Forty percent of the global plastic production is said to comprise disposable items such as straws, utensils and food packaging material. Photo: Reuters

Plastics, which are by-products of crude oil, have applications in almost all areas of everyday living.

However, the material is a headache starting from its production, using environmentally-unfriendly ways from the distillation of crude oil in the refinery, to its disposal. Once it is made, it takes an eternity for an item to decompose.

Annual global production of plastics is now estimated at 400 million metric tons, with 40 percent of the output being disposable items such as straws, utensils and food packaging material. More than eight million tons of plastics ends up in the oceans on average.

Plastic pollution has become a devastating problem as it threatens the marine life. Marine creatures could be strangled by wastes and many are killed as their digestive system gets upset by plastics as the items are ingested as food by mistake.

When large articles are broken down into microplastics, it poses a threat to the marine ecosystem as well as to human health.

In order to tackle Hong Kong's mounting plastic waste, some observers have suggested that traditional plastics be replaced with degradable ones. But I have doubts if such effort will resolve the problem.

Compared to conventional plastics, it's true that the degradable plastics can be broken down more quickly. However, that happens only under certain circumstances.

For instance, they have to be placed inside an incinerator at 50C or above for complete breakdown. If they were just dumped at landfills or got into the oceans, degradable plastics would be no different and be as harmful as the traditional ones.

I would advise the government to first undertake trials and studies as to whether degradable plastics can decompose quicker, as has been mooted under the current system of waste collection and processing.

Meanwhile, the government should ease public concerns over whether the items would release harmful substances to the environment or people during the decomposition process..

Many enterprises, especially those in the food and beverage industry, have started making efforts to halt or reduce consumption of single-use plastics such as straws or lids.

Public opinion over such initiatives has been mixed, with some supporting the plastic-free movement while others accuse of enterprises of indirect cost-cutting.

Instead of terminating single-use plastic utensils all at once, the food and beverage industry might consider providing takeaway utensils made of biodegradable materials, which can help change customers’ behavior step by step.

In terms of policy making, most governments around the world have moved from plastic recycling and remaking to creating a circular economy for plastics, which is an industrial system as well as a consumption model that is restorative and regenerative by intention and design.

The Hong Kong government should adopt the Producer Responsibility Scheme (PRS) and provide economic incentives for manufacturers to make more durable and environmentally-friendly products, or provide customers with repair or recycling services.

To establish a green supply chain, the government should foster sustainable consumption by raising the public awareness and driving citizens’ behavioral changes by encouraging them to choose products made of environmentally-friendly materials and recycling any old items whenever possible.

The government, enterprises and every member of the public all have to work together to stop plastic pollution.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 16

Translation by John Chui with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Member of Legislative Council (Functional Constituency – Accountancy)