“Reduce Reuse Recycle” – One of the earliest catchphrases of the sustainability movement but now more important than ever as we see plastic pollution clog our waterways, litter our beaches and maneuver its way into our food sources. In Hong Kong we dispose of an astonishing amount of plastic waste annually, much of which originates in the F&B sector, including 760 million coffee cups and 1.08 billion plastic straws (1). Unfortunately the situation has only gotten worse. Back in 2008 Hong Kong recycled approximately 62% of its plastics whereas in 2018 it only recycled 7% (2). The time for change is now.
Preventing and reducing these waste outputs is always the number one objective but understanding the complexity of the situation and finding solutions is not always easy. To help us better navigate this topic, this month’s Sustainability Breakfast Series welcomed June Wong and Laurence McCook from WWF-Hong Kong, who gave us their invaluable insight on the ‘big picture’ plastic problem in Hong Kong. We then heard from Philippe Li, former Business Manager of Hong Kong Recycles, who shared his experience and challenges of recycling plastic beer kegs imported from Europe.
The Global Plastic Problem
The concentration of plastics in our oceans and waterways has reached an unprecedented level. According to the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, 95% of all plastic pollution in the world is from only ten rivers. Eight of those rivers are located in Asia. As plastics break down in our natural environment micro-plastics then find their way into the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat. It was a shocking discover to learn from June of WWF-Hong Kong that an average person consumes up to 1769 particles of plastic every week just from drinking water, which is equivalent to 5g or one credit card worth of plastic.
Credit: WWF, HK Plastic Action
Are Biodegradables a Solution?
Biodegradables sound like a great solution to replace plastic and Styrofoam takeaway containers but in reality, they still often contain petroleum products in their materials and need special microorganisms to fully break them down. These conditions are not found in landfills where the majority of biodegradables ultimately end up.
Credit: WWF, HK Plastic Action
How about Compostables?
Compostable alternatives are a subset of biodegradables but have passed standards (e.g. ASTM D6400 in the U.S. or EN 13432 in Europe) for biodegradation in an industrial composting facility (3). They are generally required to biodegrade by 90% in 180 days. In Hong Kong, the Environmental Protection Department has set up two composting facilities, the Organic Resources Recovery Centres, but with limited capacity. Philippe made an excellent point that when a reusable alternative can’t be found a compostable could be used, even if it’s sent to landfill. For example, cling film in restaurants has been a difficult product to replace but a compostable alternative such as PLA, which is derived from corn or potato starch, would have a lower embodied energy (sum of all the energy required to make a product) since they are not petroleum-based. It’s important to look at the primary material options when reusables are not a solution.
What did we learn from Philippe on Plastic Keg Recycling in Hong Kong?
Counterintuitively, in some cases kegs made from plastic can have a lower carbon footprint compared to their metal counterpart.
While metal kegs from Europe were more sustainable within Europe, once they left the region, for example to the US, the plastic version was better overall, due to the fact that the one-way plastic kegs could be easily recycled in the US. Furthermore, the carbon intensity associated with returning these two-way metal kegs back to Europe (as well as damage and theft) made plastics the preferred choice.
For the case of Hong Kong, If the brewery is close by, e.g. Taiwan, or parts of SE Asia, and kegs are returned back there, then the plastic kegs fared worse, and metal kegs are preferred in terms of emissions.
We learned that context plays a big role in calculating the most sustainable option.
A point of interest was when Philippe looked at the recyclability of the plastic kegs from Europe, in Hong Kong. It was found that the top (about 20-30% of the whole keg) could not be recycled locally due to them containing recycled content. Furthermore, the remaining recyclable content is often sent abroad within SE Asia for processing due to limited local capacity. Without the right facilities to recycle the plastic kegs (and their parts) locally it is difficult to determine which keg type is the more environmentally friendly option.
Top 3 Takeaways
Our top 3 takeaways from Philippe’s experience in plastic keg recycling in Hong Kong:
Credit: HK Recycles
First, our recycling system in Hong Kong is indeed different from other countries so we need to closely analyze imported products to assess their potential recyclability. We need to understand the component parts and check to see if they can be recycled in Hong Kong. Ideally, a life cycle assessment is required.
Second, the capital cost of proper recycling needs to be considered if the supplier company will not cover it. Speak to your waste contractor to find out what materials they are able to collect for recycling.
Third, we need to ask ourselves if importing certain products from overseas is the most sustainable option in terms of carbon emissions, particularly if these products are produced locally or within the region.
In terms of importing beer, it is likely that carbon emissions would be saved by choosing metal kegs from within the region rather than choosing the unrecyclable plastic alternative. One can only be sure however by calculating the emissions and making a comparison. Our suggestion is to source locally and discuss the reusability of kegs with the supplier.
Some Final Top Tips on packaging
- Switch from bought-in water to chilled filtered tap and reusable bottles
- Use reusable packaging that can be returned to suppliers
- Use your purchasing power to insist suppliers cut down on packaging or have them take it back
- Use catering disposables that are recycled, recyclable or compostable
- Use recycled paper for till rolls, toilet paper and menus
- Cut down on plastics by reusing metal or glass
Food Made Good Members can download our Plastics toolkit to learn more about the top 6 culprits in the restaurant industry for single-use items and find solutions within.
Want to know more about the Food Made Good programme? Contact us: [email protected] or have a look at our website.
- Statistics for 2018, Environmental Protection Department
- Monitoring Solid Waste 2016, 2017, 2018, Environmental Protection Department
- Green Dot Bioplastics