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Thursday, June 13, 2019, 00:34
Community-wide effort vital in tackling Hong Kong's plastic pollution
By Peter Fowler
Thursday, June 13, 2019, 00:34 By Peter Fowler

Among the forest of soaring skyscrapers encircled by jagged mountains, leafy country parks and a glimmering sea is a monumental plastic waste problem not immediately obvious to the casual observer but should not be ignored. Hong Kong’s public services are struggling to contain increasing levels of municipal waste, a big part of which are plastic discards. 

Plastic is cheap and easy to produce but the repercussions of such are taking a toll on the environment as plastic can take anywhere from 50 to 100 years for nature to break down and decompose. In Hong Kong alone, people are discarding single-use plastic utensils every day, resulting in roughly 7.4 million plastic water bottles being carelessly tossed away only to end up in our rivers, oceans and countryside.

There are many possible factors at play that are causes for concern. There either appears to be a lack of public awareness and understanding of the issues of municipal waste, or the public willingly chooses to be apathetic, believing they are not to blame. Be that as it may, I believe that the SAR government could do better in its duty to educate the public on the importance of reducing, reusing and recycling plastic waste. Regardless of standpoint, the surge of plastic waste in Hong Kong is not going away and decisive action must be taken to fully address this alarming issue.

In 2017, researchers hypothesized that humanity had produced a staggering 8.3 billion tons of plastic since its inception. Some researchers say that plastic waste will triple by the year 2050. Hong Kong alone produced 3.7 million tons of municipal waste back in 2015 — it’s a scary thought to think how much of that included plastic. The result of plastic pollution is increasingly visible, particularly as torrents of trash continue to pollute what were once unspoilt beaches in scenic locations such as Sai Kung, Lantau Island and Shek O.

The government must implement more stringent laws to minimize plastic pollution and strengthen public education on its threat to our health and environment. This has to be a community-wide effort starting with students in our schools. Let’s hope each of them will bring home the all-important message of “avoid, reduce, or reuse” all plastic products

The rise of plastic pollution engulfing our beaches and apparent failure of the relevant authorities to do something matching the scale of the problem has led to movements by NGOs to take matters into their own hands. For example, the Filipino Dynamos is a clean-up group consisting of domestic helpers that are attempting to tackle the problem themselves by committing their only day off on Sunday to cleaning up beaches in Hong Kong. These are people who are not ordinary residents but are rectifying an inadequacy that most others simply won’t address as a major issue. Another organization is EcoDrive, a movement that claims to “promote the awareness and reduction of single-use plastic in Hong Kong through education, connecting with corporates and providing possible solutions”.

The effect of plastic waste in our seas continues to devastate marine life globally. A startling number of news reports have recently surfaced. One whale found on a beach in the Philippines had 40 kilograms of plastic in its stomach, whereas another whale washed up on a beach in Italy was found to have over 20kg of plastic in its stomach. Worryingly, fish and other marine animals will also eat toxic plastic dumped in the ocean and some of those fish will end up on our plates. Many people don’t realize that these things have a way of getting back to us eventually. 

However, hope may be on the horizon. In 2016, a group of Japanese scientific researchers discovered an enzyme from bacteria, ideonella sakaiensis, that can break down a thin layer of low-quality plastic within six weeks. Potentially, the research can be scaled for industrial use and can one day assist in preventing plastic waste from dominating land and oceans. But that’s not to say that this is the ground-breaking solution to our plastic waste problems. Although discoveries of super enzymes breaking down plastic may well help in the future, it still remains insufficient as plastic pollution has many dimensions and must therefore be faced from all possible positions.

Plastic pollution remains a very visible threat in Hong Kong. Recycling facilities have been put in place in some residences and multi-recycle bins can be found on the streets, but this is simply not enough. People are lazy and they don’t want to separate their household recyclables if it means having to venture to the streets to discard their waste. To effectively combat the problem of plastic overuse, Hong Kong needs to severely reduce its overall plastic consumption. This means restaurants and cafes must stop providing single-use plastic straws, cutlery and containers. Supermarkets must stop excessively wrapping their goods in unnecessary plastic containers.

If we do not act quickly and boldly now, Hong Kong’s remaining three landfill sites will overflow before long. The government must implement more stringent laws to minimize plastic pollution and strengthen public education on its threat to our health and environment. This has to be a community-wide effort starting with students in our schools. Let’s hope each of them will bring home the all-important message of “avoid, reduce, or reuse” all plastic products.

The author is a travel blogger and a school teacher.

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