Hong Kong is set to launch a two-phase campaign to stamp out disposable plastic tableware. Gu Mengyan reports from Hong Kong.
Hong Kong will be on track to get rid of plastic tableware after the two-month-long public consultation on the Scheme on Regulation of Disposable Plastic Tableware ends in early September.
Wong Kam-sing, the financial hub’s secretary for the environment, said the city has a clear goal in phasing out the use of plastic tableware, but has yet to set a clear timeline.
According to official statistics, an average 200 tons of discarded plastic tableware were dumped at Hong Kong’s landfills daily in 2019. This is equivalent to roughly 14.6 billion pieces of plastic cutlery or up to 1,940 pieces by each person, thrown away during the year.
If there are enough alternative materials for making plastic tableware, these disposable products will no longer be used. Having zero plastic tableware is clearly our aim
Wong Kam-sing, secretary for the environment
The COVID-19 pandemic has compounded the problem as more people turn to takeaway food. A report by data analytics company Nielsen last year showed that Hong Kong topped a list of 11 Asian economies with 46 percent of consumers showing a high preference for takeaways.
“If there are enough alternative materials for making plastic tableware, these disposable products will no longer be used. Having zero plastic tableware is clearly our aim,” said the environment chief when he called for public consultations on a two-pronged campaign to eliminate plastic tableware in the city.
The first phase, due to be implemented around 2025, would prohibit restaurants from providing all types of disposable plastic tableware to customers for dine-in service. For takeaways, catering premises would not be allowed to offer straws, stirrers, forks, knives, spoons and plates that are small in size and difficult for recycling.
The second phase, in which takeaway service would be similarly regulated, is likely to start 12 to 18 months after the first phase kicks off.
“We understand that using disposable tableware is inevitable in some cases. It will not be a blanket ban. The discussions will be in phases … so that catering businesses will have more time to adapt to the new rules,” said Wong.
“If people favor regulation through legislation, the whole (catering) industry can develop more healthily, striking a balance between the economy, the community and ecology,” he added.
Viable timeline needed
However, the city’s timeline for ending the use of plastic tableware lags well behind those of major economies, lamented Jeffrey Hung Oi-shing, the CEO of green charity group Friends of the Earth (HK).
In January last year, the Chinese mainland launched a five-year campaign against plastic waste. By the end of 2020, non-degradable, one-off plastic tableware had been banned for dine-in service at restaurants in major cities, according to Xinhua News Agency.
The European Union’s prohibition of single-use plastic tableware came into effect last month. Plastic cotton bud sticks, cutlery, plates, straws, stirrers, balloon sticks and polystyrene drink and food vessels can no longer be sold throughout the bloc’s 27 member states.
In the United States, a bill introduced in the Congress in February would phase out single-use lightweight plastic bags and plastic takeout-food packaging, including polystyrene, plastic stirrers and plastic utensils, as of Jan 1.
For Hong Kong, implementing the first phase of the ban in 2025, to be followed by the second phase 12 to 18 months later, is realistic and “very achievable”, said Hung. “However, when the rest of the world is moving so quickly in phasing out single-use plastic tableware, Hong Kong’s timeline is unrealistically long.”
In the long run, he would like to see new business models being adopted, such as introducing reusable food and drink containers, and accepting utensils brought by customers themselves, although such a process would be more time-consuming.
Davis Bookhart, who heads the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology’s Sustainability Unit, said the goals and timelines set in the road map are “quite generous” because a number of local restaurants have already stopped using disposable plastic products, and there are “quite a few” non-plastic alternatives available.
A restaurant worker fills plastic containers with food in Tseung Kwan O, Hong Kong, July 26, 2021. (CALVIN NG / CHINA DAILY)
“The timeline is too long and we should be more aggressive. I believe the government is taking a more conservative approach to make absolutely sure that everyone has ample time to comply,” Bookhart said.
He pointed out that Hong Kong may lag behind other economies because there is no charge to dump most waste at local landfills. “This makes it significantly harder to establish the right kind of market incentives for cutting down on waste, recycling and other responsible consumption habits.”
“However, Hong Kong tends to move fast when it’s ready. I have no doubt that when the conditions are right, Hong Kong will spring to the lead,” Bookhart added.
Vincent Cheng Wing-shun, a lawmaker from the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, said the phase-out plan should consider local adaptability and allow catering businesses and diners more time to change consumption patterns.
Cheng, who chairs the Legislative Council’s Panel on Environmental Affairs, urged the government to consult with the catering sector thoroughly regarding the timetable for enforcing the policies as Hong Kong is still recovering from a recession.
“We are worried that restaurants may have to transfer the additional costs to customers once they are banned from providing disposable tableware and have to use non-plastic alternatives,” he said.
Yeung Wai-sing, chairman of the Association for Hong Kong Catering Services Management, welcomed the timeline, saying the 2025 target would allow breathing space for businesses, which are still reeling from the pandemic.
“We don’t know how soon the pandemic will end or how long the curbs on social gatherings will last. The plastics-free legislation will inevitably affect small restaurants that rely heavily on takeaway orders,” Yeung said.
This July 26, 2021 photo shows disposable tableware commonly used for takeaway food in Hong Kong. (CALVIN NG / CHINA DAILY)
Bookhart said a strong pushback from the catering sector is less likely because the road map came after “years of customer complaints and encouragement” and many catering businesses have already treated the plastics opt-in to customers’ satisfaction.
“The government’s road map simply accelerates a trend that was already well underway. A pushback, if there is any, may come from small restaurants that serve a significant amount of takeaway meals and are price sensitive,” he said.
Yeung warned that restaurants may make customers pay for additional expenses on green materials by raising prices for takeaway food if affordable alternatives are unavailable.
A set of plastic tableware, including a food container, cup and cutlery, currently costs about HK$3 (US$0.38), but if it is made of non-fossil materials, it could cost about HK$5, according to Yeung. “We are waiting for more raw material providers to compete in the market so that prices can come down. That is why, I think, launching the first phase in 2025 is reasonable.”
At present, non-plastic disposable tableware alternatives available are mainly those made of paper, bamboo, soft wood, aluminum foil and plant fiber materials, such as wood pulp, straw pulp and bagasse.
According to the Hong Kong government’s assessment, the development of alternatives for straws, stirrers, forks, knives, spoons and plates must be more mature and widely applied before launching public consultations.
“Hong Kong’s catering business has a strong ability to adapt to new changes. They will be even better prepared when the second phase comes,” said Yeung.
This July 26, 2021 photo shows disposable tableware used in takeaway orders at a restaurant in Tseung Kwan O, Hong Kong. (CALVIN NG / CHINA DAILY)
Right incentives required
Eric To, who works in Wan Chai, has been using takeaway service frequently at lunchtime since the pandemic started. However, he has yet to get into the habit of rejecting plastic tableware in his orders and has a lot of unused cutlery in his office.
“I will certainly get accustomed to it if disposable cutlery is no longer offered and I am willing to do so. Sometimes people are just too lazy. Most of us, I believe, can gradually get used to a plastics-free lifestyle if the government pushes ahead with its plan,” said the 32-year-old accounting manager.
He said the campaign would be more efficient if customers are charged an extra fee for using plastic tableware in takeaway orders. “If people have to pay HK$5 for straws and spoons, it is not hard seeing a drastic reduction in the use of plastic materials.”
Janet Chan Kit-yan, a lecturer at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Biological Sciences, said that many residents are aware of the need to reduce plastic waste, but changing their behavior needs incentives.
“To supplement the proposed regulation or accelerate the process, the government should encourage restaurants to offer discounts or charge additional fees for the use of plastic tableware, so as to gradually change people’s behavior,” she said.
Wong, the environment chief, said the Hong Kong government may not consider offering subsidies for restaurants, as it wants to create a “level playing field” because many eateries are already restricting the use of plastic tableware voluntarily.
Chan questioned the government’s laissez-faire mindset, suggesting it should subsidize small eateries that have limited resources and financial capacity, to help them switch to non-plastic tableware in the early stages.
“Big restaurant chains may promptly respond to the regulation because it is more or less a corporate social responsibility issue for them, and it is also good for their image. But the smaller ones can hardly follow suit,” she said.
The government, catering businesses and consumers have equally important roles to play in eliminating the use of plastic tableware, but the government must take the lead, she added.
A man leaves a shopping center at Tseung Kwan O, Hong Kong with his takeaway food in plastic containers put inside a plastic bag, July 26, 2021. (CALVIN NG / CHINA DAILY)
It would be appropriate to create an atmosphere in which restaurant employees and customers are better educated on reducing the use of disposables when the new regulations are enforced, Chan said.
Bookhart supports imposing a charge on plastic tableware, which he believes would be “significantly more effective” in inducing behavioral changes than offering discounts would be. “A charge will still give consumers a choice, but will come with a reminder of the consequences” of damaging the environment, he said.
He agrees that the government should create a level playing field so that no businesses are advantaged or disadvantaged, in addition to removing the barriers to effective implementation.
“The policies are like highways: If they are well-designed, well-marked and convenient, then users will be able to achieve the best outcomes efficiently and effectively,” he added.
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