Let’s Aim For Reusables, Not Green Disposables

The first phase of Hong Kong’s ban on disposable plastic tableware and other single-use products will take effect in about a month, on Earth Day. Efforts to promote this plastic ban have started to appear more frequently on social and other media, including print and electronic media, and in MTR stations.
Secretary for Environment and Ecology Tse Chin-wan recently told the Legislative Council that about 80 per cent of the 20,000 small and medium-sized restaurants surveyed by the Environmental Protection Department were unprepared.
In my view, most restaurants are unprepared for two main reasons. First, plastic-free tableware is almost certain to cost more than what caterers have been using, such as polystyrene boxes and plastic cutlery. Tse has told legislators that the prices of non-plastic alternatives such as straws, stirrers, knives, forks, spoons and plates are comparable to the plastic ones.
But the paper submitted by the Environmental Protection Department to Legco last April clearly shows a big price gap when it comes to food containers. For instance, a polystyrene container costs 32-50 HK cents but an alternative made with unlined paper or plant fibre costs HK$1-2.95. This suggests the cost increase could be anywhere from twice as much to over nine times.
Second, given the repeated delays of the municipal waste-charging scheme, caterers might have doubts that the plastic ban will stay on schedule. Even if there is no delay, there will be a six-month grace period before full-force enforcement. As such, many restaurants are taking a wait-and-see attitude.
What worries me is that many of the restaurants preparing for compliance plan to switch to disposable tableware made of wood, bamboo or paper – instead of reusable options.
We must make very clear the main objectives of this plastic ban so that restaurants can take the right measures to help solve the problem. The authorities have stated that the ban aims to minimise the impact of plastic pollution on the environment and human health, and to reduce carbon emissions to mitigate climate change. I hope the authorities will remember and articulate these objectives loudly and clearly.
Will an increase in demand for bamboo or other wood materials to produce disposable tableware in any way help to reduce carbon emissions? I bet even a primary school pupil can answer this.
Large numbers of trees, bamboo and otherwise, and other vegetation together make up forests, and large forests are a nature-based solution to combat climate change. They are supposed to stay rooted to the ground to keep absorbing the greenhouse gases that are making our planet warmer and our weather harsher.
Under the Waste Blueprint for Hong Kong 2035 announced in 2021, the Environmental Protection Department has set a medium-term target of reducing the per capita disposal of municipal solid waste by 40-45 per cent. The blueprint also advocates waste reduction as one of the means to help the city achieve its carbon neutrality commitment.
Yet almost all of the alternatives to plastic displayed on the government’s Green Tableware platform are disposable. While using non-plastic disposables can minimise the ecological impact associated with plastic disposables, I do not see how they help in reducing the city’s waste and carbon emissions.
The Green Earth and other environmental NGOs have been advocating for the reuse approach. I have seen coffee chains and property developers set up user-friendly systems for customers to borrow and return reusable coffee cups. Such an approach can easily be adapted and scaled up in communities to take care of other reusable items such as food containers.
A study conducted by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a non-profit organisation that advocates for a circular economy, found that simply switching from disposable plastic to returnable plastic packaging has the significant environmental benefit of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and water use by 35-70 per cent, and material use by 45-75 per cent for certain applications.
I often hear Hong Kong government officials talk about the circular economy, but will “circular economy” remain catchy words at forums and discussions rather than a workable solution being deployed widely to tackle the city’s deeply rooted disposable culture?
To convince the catering sector to go for reusable options and show the government’s sustainability commitment, it should be announced, for a start, that all restaurants operating on government premises will switch to using reusable tableware for both dine-in and takeaway customers starting from Earth Day on April 22.

An SCMP article contributed by Mr Edwin Lau,

Founder & Executive Director of The Green Earth

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