To fight plastic bottle waste, Hong Kong needs a strong producer responsibility scheme

The suggestions put forward in the government’s public consultation will only make the city’s plastic bottle problem worse
Mandatory reduction and recycling targets with meaningful penalties for producers and importers will help create the incentives to fix the problem
(09 May 2021 SCMP) NGOs worldwide frequently conduct beach clean-ups. The International Coastal Cleanup 2020 Report found that plastic drinks bottles and their caps ranked third and fourth respectively among the collected waste, behind food wrappers and cigarette butts.
This plastic waste poses a serious threat to the ecosystem and public health. Governments must deploy effective legislation to stop it from damaging the environment.
The Green Earth has conducted brand audits on drinks bottles found on beaches in the past three years, aiming to lobby producers to clean up their mess and for the government to enact producer responsibility legislation. The latest findings released in March show C’estbon tops the list, followed by Coca-Cola and Vita.
The government’s public consultation for a producer responsibility scheme on plastic drinks bottles is open until May 21. I urge people to submit their views.
There are three suggestions in the consultation that will only exacerbate the problem. They are: the 10-cent rebate per bottle returned; not deploying a deposit-return system, and; only regulating plastic bottles.
When I was a child back in 1960s, I remember a 20-cent deposit-return system: beverage producers were keen to collect and reuse all glass bottles, so they deployed a system with a meaningful deposit.
Environment Minister Wong Kam-sing probably had a similar experience. Yet, the rebate value proposed today is lower than the amount applied five decades ago.
What’s more, only regulating plastic bottles could trigger a shift to non-regulated pack formats such as liquid cartons. Water has been sold in cartons for some time. Should this trend grow, it would defeat the legislation’s purpose.
The government should not take on producers’ responsibilities by simply requiring them to pay a levy while preparing a programme almost identical to the glass bottle producer responsibility scheme. Government contractors are struggling to salvage glass bottles because there is no incentive for consumers to return them.
The spirit of producer responsibility is to make them respect their environmental responsibilities and develop effective recovery and recycling systems, from setting up a convenient collection network to deploying meaningful incentives that will encourage consumers to return used products.
Booming beverage sales are the result of seamless collaboration between producers and retailers. Therefore, if the city is to achieve recycling rates of 90 per cent or above, they must collaborate in the same way to build a convenient recovery network apart from collection facilities at residential and commercial buildings.
The European Union has shown the way as all member states are required to establish producer responsibility schemes and meet recycling targets for all types of packaging by the end of 2024. Producers act as the doer while governments act as the checker.
Hong Kong’s administration should set reduction and recycling targets for producers and importers coupled with meaningful penalties to ensure our annual 1.55 billion used PET bottles and other waste containers are collected for recycling locally.
Research by Deloitte Advisory revealed that water made up about half of all drinks sold in PET bottles in Hong Kong. If producers set up water dispensers in high-traffic locations such as MTR stations and shopping centres, reduced plastic use would become a reality.
The administration need not worry about the capability of producers or whether the recycling technologies are ready. These issues will shift to producers, who will do their best to avoid paying any penalty.
The government seems to have no clue which producer responsibility scheme to choose or how to set financial incentives. If producers had a mandatory target, it would not need to make such difficult choices as producers would innovate to complete their green mission.
If the administration takes this clever approach, producers will abandon their 5-cent rebate per bottle and instead raise the incentive to a reasonable level – 50 cents, minimum – for all. Producers may well revive the successful deposit-return system of the old days.
Nobody wants to pay extra for a drink, so returning a deposit-carrying container would become the norm. However, most people will not bother to claim benefits from producers that are not worth their time.
Edwin Lau
Executive Director, The Green Earth
09 May 2021 SCMP