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15 March – World Consumer Rights Day The Consumer Council Calls for Collective Action by the Government, Businesses & Consumers to Tackle Global Plastic Pollution
Hong Kong is a metropolitan that celebrates speed and efficiency, as well as a typical example of a “throw-away society”. Despite advocacy efforts in society over the years, the efficacy of Hong Kong’s plastic reduction policies still has much room for improvement. Although the plastic bag levy has been in effect for almost 12 years, Hong Kong’s plastic waste remains high and ranked as the third major contributor to the city’s landfills. The plastic pollution problem concerns every single Hong Kong citizen and must be jointly tackled by all stakeholders in society: the Government, businesses and consumers as a collective effort. The Government can reference related policies and experiences from other jurisdictions to encourage people to put plastic reduction into practice through legislation and innovative measures; businesses can help curb plastic at its source by developing, manufacturing and procuring eco-friendly substitutes for plastic products; consumers can change their daily habits and say “no” to plastics.
According to “Monitoring of Solid Waste in Hong Kong — Waste Statistics for 2019”, a total of 4.04 million tonnes of municipal solid waste (MSW) was disposed of at the strategic landfills in 2019, amongst which domestic food waste (30%) and waste paper (24%) were the first and second largest constituents. Waste plastics ranked third, with a daily disposal quantity of 2,320 tonnes per day (tpd) (21% of MSW). Most of the waste plastics disposed of at landfills were single-use plastics, including food packaging, disposable utensils, plastic bags, plastic bottles, etc. Plastic bags alone accounted for 768 tpd, while various types of plastic bottles and disposable utensils constituted 440 tpd. In 2019, 1.55 billion plastic beverage bottles were discarded in Hong Kong, averaging a striking level of over 200 plastic bottles per capita per year.
Waste plastics cannot decompose in nature, and harmful substances may be released during the decomposition process, not only affecting the ecosystems and natural habitats near the landfills, but also posing a serious threat to wildlife. Animals often ingest plastic debris while mistaking it for food and countless are killed in this manner. At the same time, microplastics enter the food chain through marine animals and other food sources from the ocean. Last year, the Consumer Council found various microplastics in sea salt samples for the first time, sounding the alarm bell for over-consumption and reckless disposal of plastic products. Although the health impacts of ingesting microplastic are yet to be determined, it is known that microplastic particles could be contaminated with harmful chemical substances or release additives that pose risks to human health.
In view of the aggravating plastic waste issue worldwide, Consumers International has named “Tackling Plastic Pollution” as the theme of this year’s World Consumer Rights Day (15 March). The Consumer Council joins the movement by calling on Government, consumers and traders to address this pressing issue hands-on together and curb plastic waste at its source.
In terms of legislation, many countries have implemented progressive legislative bans on single-use plastics. For example, the EU will introduce a ban on plastic straws and disposable utensils in 2021; Canada is banning 6 types of single-use plastic items starting 2021, including plastic grocery bags, straws, foodware made from hard-to-recycle plastics, etc; and the Mainland China’s plastic straw ban also took effect on 1 January this year. In contrast, relevant legislation in Hong Kong currently only includes the Plastic Shopping Bag Charging Scheme, as well as the proposed Producer Responsibility Scheme on Plastic Beverage Containers (PPRS) which only commenced public consultation last month. The Council advises the Government to reference relevant policies and experiences of other jurisdictions and roll out more plastic reduction measures, to reduce plastic waste at the source and also to step up the efficacy of plastic recycling. Besides legislation, innovative initiatives can be adopted to encourage the public to join in the plastic reduction efforts.
As for recycling, the recycling rate of waste plastics in Hong Kong is a mere 8%, far lower than that of paper (35%) and metal (91%). Compared to the global waste plastic recycling rate of 18%, Hong Kong’s plastic recycling efforts hugely fall short of the international standard. There are several reasons for this, one being the low density of plastic materials, escalating the cost for storing and transporting waste plastics and affecting the return on recycling; and the other being the vast variety of plastic materials, with some of them non-recyclable, increasing the difficulty of meeting the recycling objective. The Government could motivate people to recycle plastics through scaling up technological and innovative solutions and by offering other incentives. The 1-year Reverse Vending Machine (RVM) Pilot Scheme recently rolled out by the EPD in Q1 2021, offers an instant rebate of $0.1 per returned plastic beverage container via e-payment platform or in form of a donation to selected charities. This is an example of a potentially effective measure hinging on a well-planned monitoring and implementation timeline by the Government.
As socially responsible corporate citizens, businesses and organisations are urged to fully support the Government’s plastic-reduction initiatives and to lead by example by rolling out eco-conscious measures to reduce plastic waste, making sustainable consumption the easy choice for consumers. A number of manufacturers have been developing and introducing new eco-friendly product designs, including biodegradable plastic or natural materials such as bamboo, to substitute one-use plastic products and slash plastic use. Suppliers have also launched product recycling programmes to reduce the environmental impact of exploitation of raw materials. These programmes are often a win-win solution for the environment and consumers, as they provide consumers with a way to recycle used products as well as additional offers and discounts. Hopefully, more corporations will follow suit.
According to the Council’s “Sustainable Consumption for a Better Future” Study Report from 2016, “too expensive” and “not easy to acquire” are two main reasons that keep consumers from making environmental or sustainable purchases, highlighting that ease is of essence for consumers to take action. The Council will continue to drive various educational, research and advocacy efforts related to sustainable consumption, with the aim of raising society’s awareness to the plastic pollution problem. Consumers can play their part in tackling plastic waste simply by changing daily habits. It is not difficult to cut down on plastic usage in daily life. Here are some ways to help the environment:
- Bring your own bottle, reusable utensils, food containers and shopping bags when purchasing take-out meals and drinks. Refrain from or minimise using disposable plastic bags, bottles, utensils, straws, etc;
- Opt for cleaning products and other daily essentials with refill options to save money and reduce unnecessary packaging;
- Try “package-free shopping” — Consider buying daily necessities and groceries from package-free supermarkets or shops to avoid excessive packaging;
- Wash your hands with bar soap at home. Compared to liquid hand soaps and shower gels, soap bars generate less plastic waste as they use simpler packaging which also means they are lighter and, hence, having a smaller transportation carbon footprint.
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