Hong Kong needs united action to tackle plastic waste crisis and boost bottle recycling

A proposed deposit scheme for beverage bottles could provide enough incentive for consumers to return plastic waste and get their money back, but the government should also consider ways to get drinks producers to improve bottle design
(22 Jan 2021 SCMP) We all have heard the story of the hare and the tortoise. The Environment Bureau of Hong Kong played the hare when it began to preach plastic beverage bottle recycling in 2018. It had a head start but has now been left behind by the beverage industry.
The plastic waste crisis has captured public attention in recent years. Among plastic debris, the amount of beverage bottles flooding beaches around the world has been particularly mind-boggling. In 2019, a daily average of around 4.84 million PET bottles was disposed of at Hong Kong’s landfills, but the recycling rate was less than 1 per cent. If Secretary for the Environment Wong Kam-sing does not implement sound and appropriate regulations, he owes Hongkongers and the ecosystem an explanation.
In the past, whenever the government proposed producer responsibility schemes for beverage bottles, it met with opposition from the industry. This time, several leading beverage producers last month took the initiative to put forward a regulatory framework which suggests a 5-cent rebate per returned bottle as part of the proposal.
The offer of 5 cents will inspire some consumers to act. However, whether the middle class will act for such a small rebate, or if the rebate approach will yield good outcomes in Hong Kong, remains to be seen.
We at The Green Earth believe that if a deposit is paid when buying a bottled beverage, this will act as a relatively stronger driving force for consumers in getting their money back. This is also a mature and effective measure adopted by many economies, which Hong Kong should not overlook.
In 2018, we found an average recycling rate of 73 per cent among 25 economies that implemented deposit and return systems. The deposit per bottle ranged from around 30 HK cents to HK$3.14, an average of 93 HK cents. Taking into account the situation of Hong Kong, I believe the recycling rate will be raised to the global average or above if we start with a deposit of 50 HK cents.
At the same time, beverage producers must improve the design of plastic bottles – such as thinner walls and caps, with no wrappers – and use a single type of material to facilitate recycling. To achieve this, the government should consider imposing a levy that leads to bottle redesign.
Appropriate environmental policies will lead to green consumerism. The threat of uncontrolled growth of global plastic production should see us adopt green shopping habits, by avoiding single-use plastic – the best option – or at least recycling as much as possible.
Edmond Lau
Senior Project Officer, The Green Earth
22 Jan 2021 SCMP