Photo: The Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR)
By Angelica Klein
Polylactic Acid or as they are better known as, PLAs, are biodegradable materials made from renewable resources such as cornstarch and sugarcane. The premise of these products is great and provides a convenient solution to our plastic problem: to keep using single-use items at restaurants or in takeaway food order while not making a lasting impact on the natural environment. However, new research has surfaced in the last year on how to properly dispose of PLAs. Many individuals or F&B outlets have not given the disposal of PLAs much thought since they are currently being marketed as biodegradable and compostable. There is no official agreed standard for ‘biodegradable’ so this causes confusion in the marketplace. But the idea that PLAs do not have a lasting impact on the environment is not necessarily true.
The idea is that PLAs are made to be compostable, meaning that they will decompose under certain conditions into harmless natural compounds . Many biodegradable PLAs can break down, but it is undetermined on how long it takes. Also, some biodegradable PLAs are made with fossil fuels or need to use chemicals in the breakdown process, which leads to fragmented plastics .
One of the main critiques of using PLAs labelled as ‘compostable’ is that to break down this single-use cutlery and other items they need to be placed in an industrial composter, which reaches very high temperatures. Not many cities have an industrial composting facility, so the idea that using compostable plastics as a solution to our plastic problem is not a solution. In different cities the recycling organizations understand that PLAs and plastics cannot be recyled in the same format. The genral public need to know not to put PLAs in plastic recycling bins, because its cannot be broken down in the same way. But many consumers do not know the difference between PLAs and regular plastics and put both into the plastic recycling bins, thinking they are doing the right thing . Unfortunately, if that happens the plastic recycling bin is considered contaminated, and everything in that bin heads straight to the landfill.
Australia is one of the first countries to take a stand against not only plastics but also PLAs. They will begin phasing out all plastics and PLA products according to the National Plastics Plan spearheaded by the Australian Government. The aim is to recover 70% of plastics by 2025 (including through composting), but no plan has been put in place to address how the collection systems will have to change to meet this target.
Unlike Australia, Hong Kong does not have an industrial composting facility or an all encompassing plastic recycling facility to take in all of the plastic recycling symbols. The plastic situation in Hong Kong is dire. In 2018, 11,428 tonnes of municipal solid waste (MSW) was thrown into HK landfills every day. According to G.R.E.E.N Hospitality Hong Kong only has the capacity to recycle about 1.8% of the total plastic waste it produces. When we see facts like these, finding solutions to the problem seems like a daunting task. But there are many things that the F&B industry and the public can do to make a difference.
Photo: Green Queen – Hong Kong Landfill
Plastic Beverage Container Producer Responsibility Scheme (PPRS) is Hong Kong’s initiative to tackle the plastic waste problem. This scheme is hoping to use a rebate system to entice recycling in Hong Kong by offering HK$0.10 for all plastic beverage containers between 0.1 and 2 litres returned to a network of collection points and reverse vending machines located across the region . A key criticism of this scheme is that there are no targets outlined in the scheme. This is very troublesome because if there are no key targets, there is nothing to hold the people behing the program accountable. This scheme is a good starting point for moving in the right direction, but we need a more robust approach to tackling the waste issue in Hong Kong.
Consumers can vote with their wallet. If you use your purchasing power to say no to plastic, single-use items you will indicate to the wider industry that plastic waste is an issue that you are passionate about. As an F&B outlet, one way you can take a stand is by providing evidence to your customers that you are not serving single-use plastic cutlery or PLAs, since Hong Kong does not have the capacity to breakdown PLAs. Moreover, you can set up water-filtration systems in your premises to avoid importing both plastic & glass water bottles.
If you would like to learn more about the PPRS initiative for Hong Kong please follow the link in the citations below. And use your voice and wallet to make a change!