Written by Lily Russell-Stracey
Last summer saw an unprecedented amount of litter washing up on Hong Kong’s beaches and 60-80% of this was plastic, according to a Coastal Watch Survey. Most of these single-use containers, such as water bottles and carrier bags, are used for an average of 15 minutes and then discarded.
Some attribute this problem to the diminishing landfill space, set to run out in 2-3 years according to Hong Kong’s Environmental Protection Department (EPD). But, being a city of apparent cleanliness and efficiency, it is tempting to point the finger at our neighbours. Regardless, Hong Kong has a serious single-use plastic problem of its own combined with a shockingly backward approach to recycling and waste management.
The EPD reports that Hong Kong recycles 38% of its plastic, but this number seems suspiciously high considering you’d be hard-pressed to find a recycling bin and rubbish collectors are rumoured to take recyclables to the landfill to save time and money. An article in the South China Morning Post (SCMP) put plastic recycling at more like 15%. Blind to this problem, the government is proposing building a new incinerator, rather than more recycling plants; a confusing move.
Producers and consumers alike have a responsibility to change their habits by reducing the rate at which they produce and purchase plastic respectively, and ensuring more of what they use can be recycled. This will add to the growing pressure on the government to install proper recycling mechanisms and networks. If carried out carefully and imminently, this will reduce the pressure on landfills, improve the quality of our beaches and other coastal areas, and it will show that Hong Kong is taking the subject of marine pollution seriously.
Despite the finger-pointing, the reaction to the news last summer was encouraging. Hong Kong’s plight catalysed community action and has maintained a steady momentum in the form of regular beach clean-ups by dozens of organisations and thousands of volunteers.
Thanks to the Hong Kong-based film-maker Craig Leeson, the awareness of the problem has spread all the way to the UN with his documentary ‘A Plastic Ocean’. In June, he was able to show his film to an engaged audience of politicians, scientists and corporate executives. The movie is now available on Netflix, categorised by the streaming site as a documentary that will ‘change your perspective of the world’. This level of awareness and popularity of the subject is helpful, but we need more than just publicity.
Every day in Hong Kong, seven million plastic bottles end up in landfill. That is almost one bottle a day for every resident. Though landfill is a slightly more attractive alternative to lying on the beach, Hong Kong should be doing more.
Hong Kongers should be using reusable alternatives for both plastic bags and bottles. This is slowly becoming the norm in countries both developed and developing so is clearly a change that Hong Kong can manage. New habits like this, if continued, would make a significant difference to waste management here.
Ultimately, though, commitments to sustainability, from consumers and industry alike, are what this city needs. Judging by the efforts of a growing proportion of Hong Kongers, it is also what this city wants.