- The Consumer Council (the Council) is pleased to submit its views concerning the Environmental Protection Department’s (EPD) public consultation on the Scheme on Regulation of Disposable Plastic Tableware (the Regulation Scheme) as set out in a consultation paper (the Consultation Paper) issued by the EPD on 9 July 2021.
- With its vision on advocating sustainable consumption, the Council published its second in-depth study report on sustainable consumption behaviour entitled “Embracing Sustainable Consumption for a Happy Life – A Tracking Study on Consumer Behaviour” on 17 June 2021 (the Study Report). The Council’s Study Report revealed that there is progress, albeit marginally, in consumers’ attitude and behaviour towards sustainable consumption over the past five years since its baseline survey in 2015. However, although Hong Kong consumers have demonstrated stronger support to various sustainable consumption behaviours under studied, recycling practice has remained stagnant. Specifically, 32% of the respondents in the study indicated they seldom or never recycled plastics, which has increased as compared with the Council’s baseline survey (27%).
- To promote consumer behavioural change towards sustainable consumption and realising the city’s sustainable development goal, the Council put forward 9 recommendations in its Study Report and one of which was to introduce legislation to ban the use of single-use plastics. The Council is therefore pleased to see the launch of the Consultation Paper that shares similar thoughts with the Council.
- With regard to the Consultation Paper, the Council fully supports the introduction of legislation to regulate disposable plastic tableware. Plastic waste is a pressing issue in the city. According to the Government’s statistics in 2019, 2,320 tonnes of waste plastics was disposed of at landfills per day, among them 200 tonnes (8.6%) was dining ware (including plastic and polyfoam). The plastics recyclables’ recovery rate has remained relatively low over the years, which was 8% in 2019. The Council believes that regulating disposable plastic tableware by banning critical types of plastic (including expanded polystyrene (EPS) tableware) in phases is an effective and pragmatic measure to reduce plastic waste at source.
- However, the Council considers that the proposed implementation timetable, i.e. Phase One to be implemented by 2025 and Phase Two to be determined about 12-18 months after Phase One, should be speeded up in order to reduce the impact of plastic pollution on our environment and not to lag behind the global development in this respect. In fact, the ban of different kinds of plastic tableware is already or will be in effect in 2021 or 2022 in some overseas countries. For reference, a list of single-use plastic products, such as cutlery, plates, and straws, cannot be placed on the markets of the European Union member states from July 2021, while six types of single-use plastics, such as cutlery and food containers, will be banned in Canada by the end of 2021, and that food and drink packaging made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polystyrene will be phased out in New Zealand by 2025,with items such as plastic drink stirrers and polystyrene takeaway packaging banned in the country by late 2022.
- Taking into account of the latest situation in Hong Kong, the Council is of the view that the phasing out of single-use plastics is in line with the aspiration of consumers. The Council’s Study Report showed that there is significantly higher take-up rate (70%) nowadays for the avoidance of the purchase of single-use products by consumers as compared with the baseline survey (56%) in 2015. The Council considers that the phasing out of disposable plastic tableware, as referred in Section 3.1 of the Consultation Paper, would gain wide support from the general public since consumer awareness and concern over the issue have increased.
- In the following paragraphs, the Council provides its views on specific aspects, namely the scope, the timeline and the exclusion under the Regulation Scheme, as well as other related issues for consideration of the EPD.
Scope of the Regulation Scheme
Outright Ban of the Sale of Disposable EPS Tableware
- The Council supports an outright ban of the sale of disposable EPS tableware to local end-consumers (including catering premises) for reasons of recycling efficiency and pollution impacts as follows:
- Being light-weighted with large volume, a large amount of EPS recovered for recycling will only produce small amount of plastic raw materials.
- The high cost of logistics and recycling of EPS, coupled with the fact that most of the waste EPS is contaminated or contains impurities, make the recycling efficiency of the material comparatively low.
- According to the statistics of the Government’s Clean Shorelines website, foam plastic ranked second in terms of composition of floating refuse in 2014.
- Also, in the International Coastal Cleanup event conducted by Green Council in 2019, EPS fragments was the second common ocean trash, which accounted for 15.4% of the total collected trash.
- In view of its low recycling efficiency and significant contribution in ocean pollution, the Council considers it legitimate that an immediate and stricter regulation on disposable EPS tableware than that on other types of plastics, for instance a ban of sale, should be adopted.
Guideline on Definition of “Plastic Tableware”
- It is noted that the Regulation Scheme aims to cover the following types of disposable plastic tableware: (i) “biodegradable plastic” tableware; (ii) “oxo-degradable plastic” tableware; (iii) “general plastic” tableware; and (iv) “composite plastic” tableware. The Council suggests that clear definition and examples of the said four types of plastic tableware should be provided to avoid market confusion and dispute.
- For instance, the Council is aware that a type of takeaway food container which is composed mainly of paper with a transparent plastic window on its lid is currently available in the market and used by some restaurants. It is unclear whether such kind of container is categorised as “paper/plant-fibre” tableware which is to be excluded from the Regulation Scheme, or if it is considered as “composite plastic” tableware which is to be covered under the Regulation Scheme. The Council recommends that clear guidelines (e.g. with the aid of examples for easy reference) on the definition of plastic tableware to be covered should be provided to facilitate proper compliance of the catering sector and to educate the general public accordingly.
Coverage of “Plastic Substitutes” under the Regulation Scheme
- The Council supports the inclusion of plastic substitutes (e.g. “oxo-degradable plastics”, “biodegradable plastics”, etc.) that claim to be degradable or biodegradable in the Regulation Scheme as the damage caused by these materials to the environment could be comparable with that by plastics.
- It is mentioned in the Consultation Paper that these plastic substitutes mostly can only accelerate their fragmentation into microplastic flakes or be biodegraded under specific conditions and hence can still pollute the environment. Likewise, the Council is aware that there has been an increasing concern among the international community about plastic substitutes.
- The Anti-Waste Law for a Circular Economy recently rolled out in France prohibits “biodegradable” claim or any equivalent claim on products and packaging based on the consideration that a scientific consensus on the term “biodegradable” is absent and consumers may be misled into believing that “biodegradable” plastics are not harmful to the environment.
- A report published by the United Nations Environment Programme and Consumers International stated that “from an overall ecological point of view, these bioplastics are not necessarily better than conventional plastics but rather level with them… Life Cycle Assessment results of compostable bioplastic packaging therefore may even show an unfavourable overall environmental performance as compared to the conventional competitors.”
- Apart from “oxo-degradable plastics” and “biodegradable plastics”, “compostable plastics” and “bio-based plastics” may be similar in nature and the terms may sometimes be interchangeable. The Council sees the need to have a clear definition of plastic substitutes under the Regulation Scheme and incorporate “compostable plastics” and “bio-based plastics” in the definition if appropriate.
Scope of “Dine-in Services” to include Large Public Events
- The Council agrees that the Regulation Scheme should cover all catering premises providing dine in and/or takeaway services. In view that catering services provided for private events and dine in services are similar in nature, the Council also agrees that catering services provided for private events should be included in the scope of dine-in services. Further, since private clubs (such as club-house regulated under the Clubs (Safety of Premises) Ordinance) may also serve food and drinks, the Council suggests that private clubs should be included in the scope of the Regulation Scheme as well.
- In addition, the Council even suggests the scope to be extended to large public events such as music festivals, food festivals, book fairs and the Lunar New Year Fairs (flower markets), etc. The fact is that the usage of disposable plastic tableware at these occasions could be very high. For instance
- According to a research conducted by Hong Kong Greenpeace in 2019, more than 300,000 pieces of plastic tableware a day on average were disposed of by three Lunar New Year Fairs in Victoria Park, Flower Market and Yuen Long.
- The recycling rate of such waste is low as the discarded plastic tableware are usually contaminated by food residue. The Council believes a considerable amount of plastic waste could be saved should such large events be included in the Regulation Scheme.
Facilitating Implementation of the Regulation Scheme by Phases
- The Council agrees that the Regulation Scheme be carried out in two phases, with the provision of disposable plastic tableware by catering premises to customers for dine-in services be completely banned in the first place (Phase One).
- From the practical point of view, the Council considers that it may be easier for catering premises to switch to reusable tableware for dine-in services than switching to sustainable tableware for takeaway services. That said, the Council is aware that some catering premises may not have washing facilities for them to wash and reuse tableware due to various reasons (e.g. space and manpower limitations) or face with other difficulties or financial burdens in order to comply with the Regulation Scheme. In this regard, the Government may need to address such issue and provide necessary support (such as provision of information and advice on sourcing of sustainable tableware alternatives and washing services) to specific catering premises (e.g. small and medium enterprises) before the launch of the Phase One.
Introduction of Recognition/Incentive Scheme to Speed Up Transition
- While agreeing that the Regulation Scheme be implemented in two phases as proposed, the Council is of the view that it may take too long for the implementation of the Phase One in 2025 and the Phase Two 12 – 18 months thereafter in view of the pressing need of local plastic waste reduction. In according to the proposed schedules, Hong Kong will be lagging far behind the global arena with respect to plastic control policies. In general, most of the regions listed in Appendix 1 of the Consultation Paper have already strengthened their regulation to ban the use of disposable plastic tableware by 2020/2021.
- The Council is aware that sustainable alternatives are becoming more common in recent years and is of the view that a recognition/incentive scheme supported by the Government and/or trade associations could effectively encourage voluntary early replacement of single-use plastics by catering service providers before the official implementation of the two phases. On one hand, the aforementioned recognition/incentive could motivate the early involvement of the catering premises, which would in turn pose a demonstration effect to other catering service providers and foster the collective shift towards a more sustainable tableware supply chain in terms of product varieties and prices in the market; on the other hand, such early replacement of single-use plastics would help address the compelling need of plastic waste reduction in the short term.
- From the perspective of policy effectiveness, the Council has reservation on the proposed exclusions, for instance, allowing the provision of disposable plastic straws by catering premises on request by persons with special needs due to their medical care reasons, except for special catering premises such as those inside the hospitals or elderly homes. Having considered that alternatives to disposable plastic straws, such as paper straws, are available and getting more common in the market in recent years, the Council is of the view that such exclusion at catering premises due to medical reasons may not be necessary as alternatives could be provided as replacement. Nevertheless, the Council advises that consultation with patient groups should be conducted to see if such sustainable alternatives could satisfy their needs.
Food Products Pre-packaged Outside Catering Premises
- The Council noted that the Regulation Scheme proposes to exclude disposable plastic tableware that forms part of pre-packaged food products prepared outside catering premises. However, the Council has reservation on such exclusion. The Council acknowledges that catering premises are playing a passive role in terms of packaging of pre-packaged food products and it seems sensible about such exclusion at the current setting. That said, the Council is of the view that the Regulation Scheme should eliminate any open up leeway from the ban of single-use plastic tableware for the sake of waste reduction and environmental protection.
- The Council suggests the Government to take this opportunity to consult the relevant industries and encourage research and innovation for developing alternatives in the long run, such as sustainable replacements for plastic tableware that forms part of pre-packaged food products or sustainable packaging which minimise or eliminate the use of plastic tableware at all. If such exclusion could be taken out, plastic waste generated by such kind of products could be largely reduced. Besides, the Council considers that consumers should be encouraged to develop sustainable consumption habit such that they would bring along their own tableware to enjoy food and drinks anytime and anywhere, including prepackaged food and drinks inside food premises or on the street.
Extending the Coverage to Other Common Types of Plastics
- Apart from disposable plastic tableware, which accounts for around 8.6% of waste plastics disposed of at local landfills in 2019, other types of single-use plastic products are common in daily life, instances are cling film, bubble wrap, packaging tape, and plastic bottles of shampoo and shower gel products in the market, while some of them are currently locally non-recyclable. The Council suggests the Government to explore the regulation of the use of single-use plastics in these products in the short-term, so as to reduce the volume of waste plastics in the city.
Encouraging the Use of Reusable Tableware
- Although the provision of disposable plastic tableware would be banned under the Regulation Scheme, the production of disposable tableware with other materials will still consume natural resources and cause pollution. The Council considers it important that waste reduction of ALL materials at source should be encouraged in the long run.
- The Government and businesses may achieve this goal by different means, for instance, to use reusable tableware, to provide disposable tableware only on request by customers and to encourage consumers to bring their own tableware via various initiatives such as reward campaigns, tableware lending and return systems. The Government may consider to take the lead to ban all disposable tableware at its premises and canteens, as well as government events and events that receive government fundings, so as to encourage the rest of the eateries to follow.
- The Council is aware that some businesses might have concern over the legal liability of food safety incidences which involve tableware bring along by consumers themselves for the purchase of takeaway food. To promote such bring-your-own-tableware sustainable culture, the Council considers it important that the Government should explore ways to address such concern, for instance, through discussion with and provision of information to businesses, setting up of guidelines, exploration of any overseas good practices or experience in dealing with such concern which Hong Kong may learn from.
- In recent years, there is a rapid growth of the food delivery platforms, which may also lead to an increased number of disposal tableware waste. To further promote the phasing out of disposable tableware and the adoption of reusable tableware, the Council considers that food delivery platforms could be a significant stakeholder which can make valuable contribution in this regard. As reported in the Council’s Study Report, there was example in other jurisdiction that its authority may collaborate with food delivery platform to reduce container waste. For instance, consumers were able to choose to order their food delivery in reusable containers and return the containers to recycle spots after washing. Such trial was subsidised by the authority and consumers using this service could get a coupon as reward.
- Furthermore, the safety standard of reusable plastic tableware, such as silicon cups or bowls, should be upheld to ensure user safety in order to gain greater consumer support and confidence in shifting to reusable plastic tableware. With reference to the recent research conducted by the Council on reusable plastic tableware as published in the September issue of the Council’s CHOICE magazine, the Council suggests the Government to take reference from overseas standards and set relevant safety standards in local to better protect the consumers.
- The Council is of the view that the Government may explore possible initiatives and setting relevant standards to promote the use of reusable tableware taking reference from experience in other places; and provide support to businesses to help them in achieving such transition.
Enhancing Education and Infrastructure about the Recycling of Non-plastic Disposable Tableware
- Subsequent to the implementation of the Regulation Scheme, it is expected that the amount of non-plastic disposable tableware, such as paper tableware, would rise. The Council considers it important that the Government should provide relevant information and education to consumers about the recycling of paper tableware. Given that paper tableware is very often coated with plastic or other substances to prevent liquid leakage, and that there is limited infrastructure and facilities in the city which are technologically capable to recycle such composite-paper-products, the Government is advised to arrange more infrastructure and facilities for recycling paper tableware and composite-paper-products in the city. Also, clear industry standards for production of paper tableware should be given to trade practitioners for facilitating post-use recycling. For instance, safety guidelines and standard of the specification of the composition of paper tableware should be set for regulating the proportion of plastic or other substances contained within.
Enhancing Information Transparency
- The Council is aware that the quantities of plastic dining wares and polyfoam-dining wares disposed of at landfills are provided in the Monitoring of Solid Waste in Hong Kong published by the EPD on an annual basis. However, there is no relevant statistics about other types of tableware. In fact, the statistics of paper dining ware is combined with other types of paper waste as an aggregated statistic, shown as “Others”.
- In order to monitor the effectiveness of the Regulation Scheme, the Council proposes that quantities of discarded disposable tableware in the city should be recorded, itemised and publicised, both before and after the implementation of the Regulation Scheme, in a regular and timely manner. On one hand, it would allow the transparency of information and identification of areas for improvement; on the other hand, it would help track if the use of plastic tableware has been shifted to paper tableware or other disposable tableware which also generate waste. From the Council’s Study Report, it is observed that information transparency is important to consumers which allows them to value the efforts they took to minimise plastic pollution and thereby encourage them to commit more.
- Further, the Council suggests the Government to set an overall reduction target to advocate conservation behaviour and achieve waste reduction at source.
Provision of Support to Catering Premises
- The Council considers that the Regulation Scheme may incur extra cost for catering premises as plastic substitutes are currently more expensive in general, the impact may be even more significant in the case of those eateries with lower profit, such as snack shops. The Council is concerned about whether such cost will be shifted to consumers. In this connection, the Council suggests the Government to consider devoting more funding to the research and development of alternatives to disposable plastic tableware, so as to boost their production and reduce cost. Also, the Council suggests that the Government may provide support to the businesses by establishing a loan-based/deposit-based lending scheme of reusable tableware. Taking reference from a recent reusable lunchbox lending initiative by the Environmental Campaign Committee, the initiative may be extended to a larger scale to further promote the use of reusable tableware.
- Consumer support is one of the keys to the success of the city’s waste reduction goals. In order to gain consumer support on the matter, the Government could work with the civil society to understand the needs and concerns of consumers and then establish the right tools to promote the progressive reduction of the use of single-use plastic tableware. Afterall, it takes time for consumers to change their behaviours, the more the consumer support is received, the sooner the waste reduction targets can be achieved.
- At last, the Council takes the Regulation Scheme as a remarkable step towards sustainability. The Council hopes the Regulation Scheme, both Phase One and Two, could be finalised and implemented as soon as possible. To recap Mr K S Wong’s quote (Secretary for the Environment) in the Consultation Paper that “Disposable plastic tableware for a meal creates harm for hundreds of years”, the Council echoes that Hong Kong cannot afford to adopt a wait and see approach in the Regulation Scheme and all stakeholders in the community play a role in taking immediate action to reduce our daily usage of disposable plastic tableware.
 See https://www.consumer.org.hk/en/advocacy/study-report/20210617
 See https://www.consumer.org.hk/en/advocacy/study-report/2016-sustainable-consumption
 In 2019, waste plastics disposed of at landfills included: (i) plastic bags (768 tonnes per day (tpd)); (ii) plastic dining wares (160 tpd); (iii) PET plastic bottles (121 tpd); (iv) non-PET plastic bottles (70 tpd); (v) polyfoam-others (49 tpd); (vi) polyfoam-dining wares (40 tpd); and (vii) others (transparent stretch film for packaging, toys, off-cuts, scrap, etc.) (1,111 tpd).
 Environmental Protection Department. (2020) Monitoring of Solid Waste in Hong Kong – Waste Statistics for 2019.
 Phase one consists of (i) banning the local sale of disposable EPS tableware and the provision of EPS tableware by catering premises to customers; (ii) banning the provision of all types of disposable plastic tableware under regulation by catering premises to customers for dine-in services as well as the provision of straws, stirrers, forks, knives, spoons and plates by catering premises to customers for takeaway services.
 Phase two extends to regulate takeaway services in the same manner as dine-in services in phase one.
 The list includes single-use plastic plates, cutlery, straws, balloon sticks and cotton buds, as well as cups, food and beverage containers made of expanded polystyrene, and all products made of oxo-degradable plastic.
 They include plastic grocery bags, straws, stir sticks, six-pack rings, cutlery and food containers made from hard-to-recycle plastics.
 By late-2022, PVC meat trays, rigid polystyrene takeaway packaging, EPS food and beverage packaging including takeaway containers, degradable plastic products, plastic drink stirrers and plastic stemmed cotton-buds will be banned. By mid-2023, single-use plastic produce bags, plastic tableware, plastic straws and non-home compostable produce labels will be banned. By mid-2025, all other PVC and polystyrene food and beverage packaging will be banned.
 EPD. Clean Shorelines. https://www.epd.gov.hk/epd/clean_shorelines/index.html
 Green Council. (2019) 十大海洋垃圾2019 玻璃碎片居首.
 French Ministry of Ecology, Energy, Sustainable Development and Spatial Planning. (2020) The Anti-waste Law in the daily lives of the French people, what does that mean in practice?
 Consumers International and the United Nations Environment Programme. (2020) Can I recycle this? A Global Mapping and Assessment of Standards, Labels and Claims on Plastic Packaging.
 Hong Kong Green Peace. (2019) 三大年宵每日派膠超過30萬件 大多不能回收
 台灣環境資訊中心. (2020) 環署與外送平台試推環保餐具 業者祭出歸還優惠.
 See https://www.consumer.org.hk/en/press-release/p-539-foldable-silicone-containers-cups
 See https://hk.on.cc/hk/bkn/cnt/news/20210906/bkn-20210906020158611-0906_00822_001.html