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Sunday, April 18, 2021, 23:23
Pandemic woes: Time to tackle growing pile of single-use plastics
By Zhang Tianyuan
Sunday, April 18, 2021, 23:23 By Zhang Tianyuan

My two-week quarantine after returning from the Chinese mainland earlier last month was “plasticky”.  For the most part of my quarantine, I had to depend on food delivery from different restaurants. Each meal I ordered through one of those delivery apps arrived at my doorstep packed in plastic bags. As I satisfied my appetite, wrappers, spoons, cups, bottles — all made out of single-use plastic — and Styrofoam boxes filled my trash can. 

Indeed, a nagging question is bothering many people like me: Where will all this trash go once I dump it? It is dispiriting to think of the exponential increase in the use of disposable plastic tableware and bags in Hong Kong during the pandemic. 

The SAR government banned nighttime dine-in services multiple times since March last year in an attempt to contain the coronavirus. In order to survive in the battered catering industry, the city’s restaurants installed takeaway counters and introduced new offers and discounts, which encouraged a large number of people who are not willing to cook at home to take out food packaged in plastic containers. Food delivery apps saw their user base increase overnight. Millions of food packages were delivered across the city every day. The volume of single-use plastics used in the last 12 months must be unprecedented in the city, which still struggles with the disposal of mountains of trash. 

Hong Kong generated around 4 million tons of solid waste in 2019, according to the Environmental Protection Department. Only 29 percent of the waste was sorted for recycling, and the rest — 71 percent — ended up in landfills. A quarter of that dumped waste was plastics that would take at least five centuries to disintegrate into the soil. A study by Greeners Action, a local nongovernmental organization, reveals that disposable plastic consumption during the pandemic, mainly for food takeaways, doubled in volume as compared to previous years. It estimated that more than 100 million single-use plastic items, including straws, cutlery, food containers, and bags, were consumed in Hong Kong every single week. 

The pandemic has clearly turned things upside down as far as Hong Kong’s waste management plans are concerned. In 2013, the government set a goal to reduce daily municipal solid waste to below 0.8 kilograms per person by 2022. However, now each resident dumps 1.53 kg each day into the landfills. As the city’s three landfills in the New Territories are reaching their full capacity, the Environmental Protection Department is left with no choice but to extend the land space to meet the dramatically increased demands.

With its newly launched “One-off Recycling Industry Anti-epidemic Scheme”, which has a whopping HK$100 million ($12.9 million) budget, the government has acknowledged the volume of waste generated during the pandemic. And this program can enhance the recycling capabilities of the existing mechanism. However, no programs or measures have been launched specifically to address the ever-growing menace of disposable plastics, which constitute the majority of waste generated in the highly active catering industry.   

To address the challenge of single-use plastic waste, the government needs to move beyond standard recycling solutions. Policymakers need to take two key measures: First, the introduction of strong legislation to reduce production and consumption of single-use plastics in the form of tableware, cutlery, and bags; second, launching a serious public awareness campaign to encourage people to reduce consumption of single-use plastics.  

The idea of a total ban on single-use plastics has been debated across the globe. Pro-ban advocates argue for the total replacement of plastics with degradable substitutes, while anti-ban advocates warn of the repercussions of a sudden ban that could wreck the economy. Without getting entangled in these messy debates, the Hong Kong government could simply follow a path taken by the mainland.

In 2018, enacting its “National Sword” policy, the mainland banned the import of plastics from abroad and reduced the deluge of solid plastic waste. The mainland has now launched fresh plans to ban single-use plastics in phases. Major cities have restricted the use of plastic bags as of the end of last year, and every city and town will do away with them in the next five years. The restaurant industry was ordered to cut down on single-use plastics by 30 percent by 2025. 

Hong Kong could take a cue from these measures and introduce appropriate legislation banning single-use plastics in a similar manner. A well-executed public awareness campaign can supplement such legislation to produce a greater effect. The silver lining of this destructive pandemic could be that it exposes the ever-growing threat of plastic waste in the city, compelling our policymakers to take effective and executable measures to mitigate it.

The author is a Hong Kong-based journalist.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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