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To tackle plastic bottle waste, Hong Kong needs legislation with targets and teeth

Plastic bottles of water on sale at a supermarket in Central in December 2017. Photo: Dickson Lee

The three-month public consultation on a proposed producer responsibility scheme for plastic beverage containers ended last May. But there have been no updates from Secretary for the Environment Wong Kam-sing regarding details of the legislation. The minister’s term of office will end next month.

Many similar pledges and pilot schemes have appeared locally and abroad already. In February, Coca-Cola Company pledged to make at least 25 per cent of its global beverage packaging reusable by 2030. Its franchise in Hong Kong, Swire Coca-Cola, has yet to commit to any similar target.

Beverage producers worldwide have been criticised for being too slow in tackling plastic waste caused by their massive adoption of single-use packaging.

In late 2018, Swire Coca-Cola, Vitasoy and Watsons Water announced through Drink Without Waste, a not-for-profit platform, their pledge to increase recovery rates for used beverage containers by 70-90 per cent by 2025. Reducing excess packaging was one of the proposed strategies, but no commitments were made or any specific reduction targets set.

Reducing the production of single-use packaging is not a direction welcomed by producers, as it might adversely affect sales volumes and profits. So they embrace recycling instead. However, plastic cannot be recycled endlessly.

Beverage producers worldwide are well known for their lobbying activities, dating back half a century, against policies that pose a threat to their business.

When California considered enacting a container deposit law in 1974, Keep America Beautiful, an organisation backed by the beverage industry, opposed it. In 2020, the Changing Markets Foundation published a report disclosing lobbying efforts in Austria against the introduction of a bottle deposit return system that has proven effectiveness in reducing plastic pollution.

In Hong Kong, The Green Earth and other green groups have been urging the government to make producer responsibility mandatory via a deposit return system, coupled with meaningful targets, to put the responsibility back on drink producers and retailers.

Countries worldwide have adopted different mandatory measures to penalise producers should they fail to meet targets. For instance, Norway has introduced an environmental tax to encourage beverage packaging recovery and penalise producers.

Does the long delay in announcing details of the producer responsibility legislation in Hong Kong indicate that the administration might have been successfully lobbied by beverage interests?

To make drink producers responsible for the pollution arising from their single-use packaging, the legislation must have targets and teeth, and require producers to publish relevant reports verified by a third party annually.

An SCMP article contributed by Mr Edwin Lau,

Founder & Executive Director of The Green Earth

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