There’s a way to end plastic pollution. Does the Hong Kong government have the will though?

Around the world, countries’ bans on microbeads have triggered companies to remove polluting particles from products. Hong Kong must deploy effective measures against microplastics, given the potential threat they pose to public health.
Microplastics are tiny plastic particles with a diameter of less than 5mm. They are now widespread in daily life. Studies published back in 1998 already found these minute fibres in human lungs.
Research published earlier this month in the journal Environmental Pollution discovered that all mussel samples bought from supermarkets, from aquaculture farms and wild-caught from almost all waters, including the North Sea, the Mediterranean and the South China Sea, contain microplastics.
Polypropylene (PP) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) were the most common microplastics found in the mussels. Disposable meal boxes and face masks are mainly made of PP while most single-use drinks bottles are made of PET.
Various overseas and local studies conducted in recent years have confirmed the presence of microplastics in drinking water (tap and bottled), beer, salt, honey, fish, fruits and vegetables, placentas of unborn babies, human stools, oceans, beaches and in the air. So, with the prevalence of such potential public health hazards, it is irresponsible of governments and businesses to turn a blind eye to the issue.
Microplastics come from two main sources. They are either produced intentionally in the form of microbeads for consumer products such as facial scrubs and toothpastes, or they are created indirectly through the disintegration of plastic products such as bags, bottles, food containers, packaging, and through the washing of synthetic garments.
Health experts cannot as yet prove exactly what the health impacts may be of long-term ingestion or inhalation of microplastics. But they anticipate that further studies will show some serious health issues the whole world must address.
In the meantime, individual governments and businesses are coming up with legislation and solutions. For instance, Britain, Canada, the United States, New Zealand, Taiwan, India and Thailand have banned microbeads in certain types of personal care and cosmetic products.
Eco-friendly alternatives exist. In fact, the cosmetic industry used to use natural ingredients like nutshell, coconut fibre and salt as exfoliants in products. These ingredients biodegrade without affecting the ecosystem and food chains. But, due to a lack of requirements of transparency and disclosures on environmental issues, cosmetic firms turned to cheaper plastic ingredients instead.
In Hong Kong, chain retailers like Mannings, Watsons and Sa Sa have been phasing out rinse-off cosmetics and personal care products containing microbeads ahead of any government initiatives.
In April 2018, the Environmental Protection Department commissioned a consultancy to consider measures relating to microbeads in personal care and cosmetic products. Based on the consultant’s recommendations, a “Mircobead-free Charter” is due to be launched this year.
However, it is only voluntary. Surely it would be more effective to emulate other economies which have simply implemented bans on products containing microbeads.
We must also deploy effective measures to limit the secondary source of microplastic pollution, which makes an even greater contribution to plastic pollution in the ecosystem.
Plastic bottles, plastic bags, plastic wrapping and packaging, styrofoam – you name it, it’s been found in the debris on our nature trails and beaches. The government even has to deploy special boats daily to remove the massive amount of plastic pollution in our surrounding waters.
If the proliferation of plastic use at source remains unchecked, plastic waste will still enter the ecosystem even if the city beefs up its plastic recycling system. And, over time, such plastics will inevitably disintegrate, eventually becoming nasty additives served with our meals.
The genuine solution is for the industry to replace plastic materials with natural ingredients derived from algae or agricultural waste like husks, straws and shells for short-lived products and packaging. You don’t need durable grocery bags or packaging, just something strong enough to be used once or in the short term.
The current way of doing business is no longer acceptable. Products prepacked in plastic then put in a plastic bag should not be tolerated when environmentally responsible businesses have already shown the way forward by opening zero-waste, plastic-free stores in Hong Kong and other parts of the world, and increasing numbers of customers are bringing their own containers or bags for green shopping.
Solutions are already out there. What we need is a much stronger commitment from the government and businesses to revive an old but sustainable business approach.
Edwin Lau
Executive Director, The Green Earth
31 Jan 2021 SCMP