Most of the plastic that has ever been produced – amounting to billions of tonnes of waste – is still in existence, and its durability means that it is not going to disappear any time soon.
According to the United Nations Environment Programme, only 9% of plastic has ever been recycled and about 12% incinerated, while the rest – 79% – is now contributing to the waste that is choking our seas, overflowing our landfills and littering the natural environment. In Hong Kong, 2,320 tonnes of plastic waste are thrown out every day, making up 21% of municipal waste – with the biggest culprits being plastic bags and tableware.
It is hardly surprising that the World Economic Forum estimates there will be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050.
To tackle this dire and growing problem, governments around the world are introducing legislation to ban certain disposable plastic items, including Hong Kong. The proposed “Scheme on Regulation of Disposable Plastic Tableware” will ban the use of certain plastic products such as cutlery, cups, containers and lids.
Hong Kong is not the only city currently grappling with the problem of how to deal with its plastic waste. But we have some unique attributes that mean making the transition is particularly challenging.
We are one of the most densely populated cities in the world, with small flats and limited kitchen facilities. Many of us also work long hours away from home. Take-out provides a solution to both these problems at once by providing fast, accessible and affordable options for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
“Hong Kong citizens dine out four to five times per week and order takeaway five times a week on average,” said Joanne Yung, Principal Environmental Protection Officer, speaking at a recent Chamber event to explain the Government’s proposals. “And that means a lot of disposable plastic tableware.”
The scheme will be introduced in stages starting in 2025, to give businesses time to prepare. Expanded polystyrene (EPS) products will be banned first, as they are among the most difficult to recycle, followed by bans on disposable tableware in dine-in service, then in takeaways. There will also be a progressive approach to the items banned, with products where alternatives are already available likely to be first.
Fong Kin-wa, Assistant Director at the Environmental Protection Department, said that businesses in Hong Kong have been generally supportive of the need to cut plastic use. “But some have raised concerns they may find it difficult to distinguish the types of alternative products that are acceptable, and also about the price differential in the current viable substitutes,” he added.
So the Government plans to communicate with suppliers on alternatives and will ensure that this information is available to businesses. Fong also noted that the market globally is moving towards non-plastic tableware, so he is confident that the price will continue to drop.
Alan Lo, Co-founder of the Classified Group of restaurants and Convenor of the Chamber’s F&B Working Group, said that he generally approves of the scheme.
“We are in a world where, from a sustainability standpoint, it makes a lot of sense and is way overdue,” he said.
Lo’s own restaurants have already been using biodegradable utensils for some time. Although there has been a cost associated with this switch, the industry will have to adapt to this trend for the good of the environment, he said, adding that entrepreneurs and scientists will likely continue to come up with new alternatives to plastic.
He also noted that the regulations will affect all types of restaurants, not just those that have traditionally focused strongly on takeaway trade.
“With the new normal, and with the Covid situation, a lot of higher end restaurants are now embracing deliveries,” he said.
The target date for the launch of the scheme is still a few years away, but Lo believes that many businesses are already moving ahead of the regulators. “I feel that the industry and the consumers are way more ready than they think,” he said.
The growth of social media and the way that companies interact with their customers has also changed in recent years. One impact of this is that businesses are more aware of their customers’ likes and priorities, including the trend towards greener living.
“Consumers are becoming much more savvy and aware of the problems facing the environment,” he said. “And it is not just plastic utensils – the movement towards plant-based food and concern about carbon footprints will affect how people make their consumption choices down the road.”
Thomas Mak, Group Supply Chain Management Director of Jardine Restaurant Group, said that the company, which operates restaurants in Hong Kong including KFC and Pizza Hut, had already started to introduce more sustainable options.
“We recognise the importance of reducing disposable plastic consumption at source, and some actions we have taken include the replacement of some of our disposable plastic packaging with FSC- and PEFC-certified paper, increasing eco-friendly content in our packaging materials, streamlining our packaging, ceasing to serve disposable plastic straws and cup lids to customers, among others,” he said. “We will continue to work towards reducing the use of disposable plastics in our restaurants.”
The company has also set up a Sustainability Council with representatives from across the group to learn about practices in different locations. Mak said that a key learning from this collaboration has been that environmental sustainability and customer experience should go hand-in-hand.
“As we look to introduce more eco-friendly packaging alternatives, we also need to take into consideration the redesign of customer experience in order to generate sustainable impact in the long run,” Mak said.
Many restaurants will likely switch to alternative materials, but as Martin Fan, Managing Director for Greater China at TUV Rhineland, notes, this is not necessarily going to be a straightforward switch.
“Common alternatives to disposable plastic tableware include cups made of cardboard or bagasse, or wooden tableware,” he said. “However, bagasse is coated with non-biodegradable waterproofing and grease-proofing substances, so it cannot be composted. For wooden tableware, the source of wood plays a decisive role in climate balance, and it is often difficult to identify.”
Another issue that Fan noted is that replacement products must be safe for human use and for food storage.
To ensure that products come from sustainable sources, and that they are safe for use in food service, some sort of authentication process would be a good idea, to make sure we are not exchanging one problem for another.
For small businesses in particular, the cost implications of changing to alternative products is also a concern. But there is some good news from the United States. Businesses that participated in the ReThink Disposable programme found that they started to save money within a few months, for example by switching to large dispensers of sauce rather than individual packets, using “real” crockery and cutlery for dine-in rather than disposable, and encouraging customers to bring their own containers for take-out.
With its focus on items used in food take-out, the “Scheme on Regulation of Disposable Plastic Tableware” may not have a big impact on all Hong Kong businesses immediately. But it seems highly likely that the list of banned items will be expanded in the near future.
The hotel sector, with its small bottles of shampoo and individual food and drink packages, could be next in line. However, many hotel groups in Hong Kong are already taking the initiative to move towards sustainable practices.
Sino Hotels, for example, has committed to reducing single-use plastic consumption by 50% by 2022 from the 2017 level, as part of its commitment to cut plastic waste generally.
“Since June 2018, the Group has banned plastic straws and stirring rods at food and beverage outlets of all hotels, and served eco-friendly alternatives upon request,” explained Melanie Kwok, Senior Sustainability Manager at Sino Group.
“Other initiatives to reduce consumption of single-use plastic include replacing bathroom amenities with refillable dispensers, providing eco-friendly containers and cutlery, and introducing umbrella dryers and reverse vending machines.”
To cut down on plastic bottles of water, the Group has also installed 100 smart filtered water stations serving 2,100 guest rooms and facilities. “The water stations are installed at easily accessible locations for guests to refill their own bottles or the glass flasks provided in each room,” Kwok explained, adding that this initiative had saved more than a million plastic bottles.
Langham Hospitality Group is another hotelier that is ahead of the curve in sustainable practices. Speaking at a recent forum organized by the Business Environment Council, Carmen Ng, Director of Sustainability at the group, said that the company had already embarked on the journey to cut down on disposable waste.
“In the hotel sector, we do have a lot of single-use disposable items due to weight, hygiene, convenience and demand from customers,” she explained. “We started phasing out single-use plastic in 2018, but it wasn’t an easy journey.”
The company selected 11 items to remove initially, including cocktail sticks and straws, and since then it has continued to refine its policies. Ng said that becoming more sustainable is an ongoing process and there is a lot to learn, such as the definition of biodegradable and what types of products are safe to use.
“Also, engagement with staff is very important,” she said, adding that employees had been supportive, coming up with their own suggestions to reduce the company’s environmental impact.
Ng added that one positive impact of the past 18 months under Covid-19 was that “change is the new normal.” Now is a good time for businesses to take risks, and Ng said that she had been encouraged by the positive reaction in support of the company’s sustainability policies: “I encourage corporates not to hesitate.”
Chamber Suggestions on Government Proposals
Below are some of the key points from HKGCC’s response to the proposed “Scheme on Regulation of Disposable Plastic Tableware”; you can read our full submission online
- The Chamber supports in principle the use of legislation to eliminate disposable plastic tableware from the waste stream.
- At the same time, there are concerns among SMEs over the potential costs that such a policy measure would bring. Although the cost of plastic substitutes has become cheaper due to advances in technology and rising demand, these are still comparatively more expensive than plastics. To encourage SMEs to adapt to the Regulation Scheme, we suggest that the Government consider providing support (financial and/or non-financial) to this segment.
- We suggest that the Government should consider ways to incentivise businesses to make an early transition towards a plastic-free culture. This could involve accrediting those that have been able to phase out single-use plastic tableware before a certain period of time.
- The Government should also lead by example by phasing out the use of plastic in government, institution or community premises before the Regulation Scheme is fully implemented.
- Education and awareness-building are especially important in garnering support from the public and businesses. For businesses, concerns over additional costs can be a major hurdle. To promote broader support for the Regulation Scheme, we suggest that the Government emphasise the cost-saving benefits of switching from single-use to reusable items in public messaging.
- Reducing the use of disposables will require changes from the throwaway culture which has become so ingrained in our lifestyle. Such a behavioural shift could be fostered through the introduction of a deposit-return scheme for takeaway containers and/or the establishment of cleaning facilities for reusable utensils in public spaces.
- Common alternatives to disposable plastic tableware include wooden utensils and those made from cardboard or bagasse, which are usually coated with non-biodegradable waterproofing and greaseproofing substances, and are therefore not compostable. In the case of wooden tableware, questions of sustainability and whether these are ethically sourced will inevitably arise.
Jurisdictions around the world are introducing rules to cut the use of disposable plastic
The Single-Use Plastics Directive came into force in the E.U. in July. Under this law, 10 plastic items – including cotton bud sticks, plates, straws, balloon sticks and polystyrene food and drink containers – are banned. These items were selected as they were the most common types of plastic waste found on the E.U.’s beaches in a survey that also found that 50% of marine litter was made up of single-use plastic items.
A new law in Japan, expected to come into force in April next year, will require restaurants, convenience stores and other retailers to reduce the use of 12 disposable plastic products including spoons, straws and hangers. To reach their targets, it is expected that businesses will either charge customers for plastic products or offer non-plastic alternatives.
Australia’s states and territories have different policies in place. South Australia, the Australian Capital Territory and Queensland introduced bans on various single-use plastic products such as straws, plates and cutlery this year, while Western Australia, New South Wales and Victoria plan to introduce similar measures within the next year or two. However, Tasmania and the Northern Territory have not made any commitments to date.