Recycling is not a problem Hong Kong can dump on China now

(22 December 2017)Edwin Lau says recent government efforts to reduce plastic waste do not go far enough. With the mainland’s ban on many types of recyclables going into effect, Hong Kong needs to think about disposing of them without making more waste.
The problem of Hong Kong’s mounting waste made headlines in September when its recycling companies abruptly stopped collecting waste paper, after mainland China began to impose restrictions on waste imports. The logjam eased after restrictions were temporarily lifted, but we need to prepare for greater challenges when mainland China stops accepting 24 types of foreign waste by year’s end.
More than 90 per cent of our recyclables are exported to the mainland. When China shuts its doors later this month, recyclers are too optimistic if they think they can export recyclables to other Asian countries. Foreign recyclers, subsidised by their governments, will also turn to countries like Vietnam and the Philippines. And they can offer lower prices than we can.
Besides price, quality is another weakness of our recyclables. Our paper quality is poor, as is the purity of our plastic recyclables compared to other countries’.
The Environment Bureau has announced three main measures recently to reduce waste: from February, vending machines at government premises will stop selling plastic bottled water of 1 litre or less; a guideline for waste reduction has been launched for event organisers of eight major community events, including the Lunar New Year fair; just this week, it launched a campaign asking the public to recycle three types of paper (cardboard, newspapers and office paper) and two types of plastics (containers for drinks and personal care products).
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I welcome the first two, which will raise public awareness and trigger further action to tackle our waste problems. But more steps are needed to achieve the desired waste reduction outcomes, and I am concerned that the last measure will leave even more recyclable materials in our landfills.
Installing water dispensers at government premises and MTR stations is a viable step to help create a green culture of bringing one’s own reusable bottle to get a convenient refill of drinking water.
Organisers of major community events should form a waste reduction committee by inviting green groups to join, whereby they can offer advice and monitor waste reduction at the events. Waste audits should be conducted for all these events annually.
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The government’s producer responsibility feasibility study for plastic bottles used for drinks and personal care products will take around 18 months to complete. In the meantime, the deposit-and-return system – a voluntary system operated by local drink companies to bring their glass bottles back to factories to clean and refill – should be revived. This system, coupled with reverse vending machines, should be applied to low-value drink plastic bottles to achieve a much higher recycling rate than the 7.6 per cent recorded in 2015.
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Last week, the Green Earth released the results of its survey on plastic bottle recycling in Hong Kong, showing that 84 per cent of surveyed recyclers no longer accept plastic bottles. The 7.6 per cent recycling rate of PET bottles was largely achieved through the effort of government facilities and community recycling networks and stations. This clearly shows that the commercial recycling market for plastic has collapsed.
The colonial government praised a laissez-faire policy of letting the business sector work freely, but when the free market isn’t working and creates environmental problems, the government should step in. The Environment Bureau should put more resources and effort into educating the public to practise clean recycling for all kinds of recyclables to proactively tackle the serious waste challenge.
Edwin Lau
Executive Director of the Green Earth
22 December 2017 SCMP