Hong Kong staring at plastic waste crisis if workable recycling plan remains out of reach

In new legislation passed in April, China reaffirmed its intent to move towards zero solid waste imports. The waste-exporting nations that kept putting contaminated material in their recyclables have only themselves to blame for causing China to take this step. For Hong Kong, managing our own waste instead of relying on the mainland would perfectly illustrate the spirit of “one country, two systems”.
Last year, our industry invested in building three plastic recycling plants in Hong Kong and these are expected to become operational later this year. These plants require a continuous feedstock of used plastics to process, and PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles are among the kind of waste they need to produce profitable food-grade materials. The challenge is that they may not be able to collect the roughly 20 tonnes of PET bottles needed per day per plant.
In 2018, the export recycling rate for PET bottles was only 0.2 per cent of total generated, whereas 139 tonnes of such bottles were disposed of daily in landfills. That means the existing recycling system has been an almost complete failure at recovering the very waste items deemed profitable for recycling.
The three-colour waste-separation bins have given a false impression to the public that recyclables placed in the bins will indeed be recycled. However, as news reporters have repeatedly discovered, well-sorted PET bottles dropped by tenants of housing estates into recycling bins do not always end up in waste recycling facilities.
Given that the mainland’s waste import gate will close in less than six months’ time, the sudden death last week of the long-overdue waste charging bill at the Legislative Council, and that the Basel Convention will restrict movements of mixed plastic recyclables from 2021, Hong Kong cannot afford to keep ignoring its own waste crisis.
The Environmental Protection Department has just launched the “Reduce and Recycle 2.0” campaign aiming to recover more types of waste, including a plastic collection scheme for the non-commercial sector in three districts.
However, the city needs much stronger measures than those announced. In the absence of waste charging and producer responsibility regulations, the government must expand its plastic collection scheme to all districts within the tenure of this administration; retrofit material recovery facilities at refuse transfer stations and at the entrance of landfills to extract recyclables from mixed dry trash; and introduce a landfill ban for plastic and other types of resources that would steer us away from the waste crisis.
Edwin Lau
Founder and Executive Director of The Green Earth
1 July 2020 SCMP