September 19 is International Coastal Cleanup Day. Many green-minded people may celebrate the day by volunteering to clean up a rocky shore in their neighbourhood. Having collected worldwide marine garbage data from cleanup actions since 1986, American green group Ocean Conservancy released its annual International Coastal Cleanup Report last week. It is the first time that food wrappers displaced cigarette butts to top the chart of marine garbage.
With garbage continuously fed into the sea, coastal cleanups are never enough. One cannot simply clean up the environment, without thinking about who is responsible for this plastic waste.
Ocean Conservancy’s report should be the writing on the wall for manufacturers of consumer food products to take responsibility. Manufacturers, where plastic pollution originates, have chosen to wrap their food products in non-reusable, non-recyclable, multilayer plastic materials and shifted the responsibility for properly tackling packaging waste to governments and consumers.
The Green Earth’s research shows that candy wrappers were the most abundant food wrapper produced in Hong Kong, accounting for 13 per cent of all wrappers. Hong Kong generated 340 million plastic candy wrappers in 2019.
The number of units would run into billions if we count both outer and individual wrappers. Due to the grab-and-go sales culture and health concerns about sugar consumption, The Green Earth expects an increasing trend in the coming decade with more small sachets appearing in the market.
Most of this huge pile of high-grade plastic cannot be reused or recycled. Take Nestle’s Kit Kat as an example: the wrapper is designed for single use. Once you open it, you cannot reseal it for reuse and other purposes. It is also multilayer – plastic material (the printed outer side) joined with aluminium (the inner side) that is very expensive and technically complicated to separate for recycling. No recyclers in Hong Kong will recycle it for those reasons.
The Green Earth urges the biggest confectionery brands – Mars, Ferrero and Nestle, which comprise 40 per cent of the Hong Kong confectionery market – to make good on their international plastic reduction commitments in Hong Kong as well. While brands enjoy handsome profits and rising sale revenues, they should not ignore the plastic waste they produce.
By 2025, the city’s supermarkets and candy stores should offer “bring your own bag”, zero-package purchase, and/or non-plastic packaging alternatives. If the use of plastic material is inevitable, brands should have clear recycling instructions on their packaging and this packaging should be made from 100 per cent recyclable and reusable material.
Senior project officer, The Green Earth