Study made by David Dodwell (executive director of the Hong Kong-APEC Trade Policy Study Group, a trade policy think tank) in the South China Morning Post.
Phone Paul Zimmerman, district councilor for Pok Fu Lam in Hong Kong’s Southern district, and you may be surprised to discover that the national security law and threats to the future of democracy in Hong Kong are not top of mind. Rather, it is plastic – in particular the current three-month public consultation on plastic beverage containers, which ends in a month’s time.
What a comfort to discover a politician who is sleeves-rolled-up for a massive local community challenge, and not obsessed with the three-decades-long arm-wrestling match over the exact details of Hong Kong’s ideal political or democratic architecture.
Like in most parts of the world, plastics in Hong Kong are becoming the stuff of environmental nightmares. Since the world began producing plastics at scale about 70 years ago, they have come to epitomize the dire, unsustainable heart of the Anthropocene, the era in which humans have assumed the power to change the world before recognizing the implications. With the fossil fuels that are dangerously lifting global temperatures, we have celebrated the benefits they bring without giving adequate thought to the embedded harm that must be managed.
Plastic production has soared from 2 million tonnes a year in 1950 to more than 400 million tonnes a year today. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in a September 2018 report estimated that just 9 per cent of the 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic waste generated since 1950 has been recycled, with 12 per cent incinerated and about 80 per cent left to accumulate in landfills, or to drift remorselessly into our oceans.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, we are adding about 8 million tonnes of plastic to our oceans every year. Some predict that plastics will by 2050 make up more of the biomass of the oceans than fish. And for anyone who has seen the alarming Netflix documentary, Seaspiracy, you may be wondering just how much plastic we already consume whenever we eat fish.
Even as we now realize the scale of the problems we have created, we are only on the nursery slopes of finding solutions. While there is modest hope of progress being made with plastic bottles, or the elimination of plastic straws, as public awareness and concern rises, there is a grim and growing realization that many forms of plastic simply cannot be recycled.
Drinks bottles made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and shampoo containers made from high-density polyethylene (HDPE) can now be effectively recycled, but the same cannot be said of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), low-density polyethylene (LDPE), polypropylene (PP) or polystyrene (PS), where current recycling rates remain close to zero.
This perhaps explains why most of the international efforts to deal with our plastics problem are focused on packaging and bottles, which are dominated by PET and HDPE plastics, and on efforts to eliminate packaging dependent on plastics that the UN Environment Program (UNEP), in its 2020 progress report on the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, says have “no credible pathway to making recycling work in practice and at scale”.
It also perhaps explains the pusillanimous positioning of most governments on the plastics crisis. The UNEP report damns most governments with faint praise for their “encouragement of voluntary actions”, and acknowledges the slow progress: “A small minority of signatories [of the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment] have begun to signal their ambition by setting quantitative targets to make reuse solutions available across a specific number of product lines or stores.” The use of words like “signal”, “ambition” and “targets” shows well the absence of substantive progress.
Among the 250 businesses that contributed to the UNEP report, many made firm commitments to raising recycled content in their products, but the modesty of their progress was telling: Coca-Cola (which produces 2.98 million tonnes of plastics a year), is using recycled plastic for 9.7 per cent of its current content, and promises to reach 25 per cent by 2025. But as US talk-show host John Oliver cynically noted last month, Coke promised in 2009 to reach 25 per cent recycling by 2015.
Meanwhile, PepsiCo currently uses recycled plastics for 4 per cent of its 2.3 million tonnes of production, Unilever just 5 per cent, and Nestle just 2 per cent.
Perhaps naturally, because of the comprehensive procrastination of leading plastics users, most of the community pressure has been put on consumers and consumer behavior – encouraging them to reduce their use of plastics and contribute to recycling efforts.
But there is a rising recognition that these consumer-focused initiatives, valuable as they are at the margins, and important as they are in shaping public opinions that drive political pressure, the plastics problem must ultimately be tackled by producers themselves – through elimination, innovation and “circulation”. That means eliminating non-recyclable forms of plastic from the supply chain, innovating ways to reduce plastics use, and ensuring that plastics are reused, instead of escaping to pollute the environment.
It is this that Zimmerman and the 50-strong Drink Without Waste alliance are focusing on in the current Hong Kong government consultation on plastic beverage containers, and on the creation of a producer responsibility scheme that puts responsibility firmly on the shoulders of companies that make and use plastics.
As Hong Kong is a regional laggard in recycling (Taiwan and South Korea perform far better in terms of how little they waste, and how effectively they recycle), the initiative offers potential to improve Hong Kong’s performance.
Not only are the producers of plastic packaging and bottles being required to provide plans for receiving used products of all types and sizes for recycling, but bottle returners are likely to get rebates initially set at five cents per bottle. This is intended to incentivize participation by Hong Kong’s community of 400,000 informal recyclers – “cardboard grannies”, domestic helpers, recycling shops and trucks. Drink without Waste expects this to boost recycling to 70-90 per cent of beverage packaging.
Plastics collection points are being augmented, and already there are 40 reverse vending machines on trial that will allow people to return all kinds of containers.
Hong Kong government consultations are infamous for leading to little more than further consultations, but let’s hope this time it is different. These baby steps are unlikely to purge the oceans of plastics, but baby steps are better than none.
David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view.