Single-use plastics are causing catastrophic environmental damage – and threatening both animal and human health. There can be few more pressing eco-challenges than reducing, eliminating and ultimately replacing them with sustainable alternatives. Hong Kong has an especially outsized plastic-waste footprint.

In our first roundtable of 2022, a trio of experts met online to share knowledge and insights, and explore solutions: Dana Winograd from Plastic Free Seas, Paul Zimmerman from Drink Without Waste and Merrin Pearse from Coordinate4U.

Heidi Yu-Spurrell, CEO of Food Made Good HK, opened the Roundtable by emphasising the importance of taking a holistic view and working collectively. Heidi also noted that “sustainability is a moving space in which things are always changing.”

“Sustainability is a moving space in which things are always
changing.” 

 

A great turnout and discussion from our speakers and Group & Chain Members!

THE PLASTICS PROBLEM – AND SOLUTIONS

To define the problem, Heidi showed a shocking YouTube video of a scuba diver in Bali swimming in plastic-strewn water, then noted that 8 of the world’s 10 most plastic-polluted rivers are in Asia and that only 10% of the world’s plastic is currently recycled. There is hope, though, as a recent McKinsey survey reveals that most consumers globally are willing to pay more for sustainable packaging. 

Heidi then shared a waste management triangle with PREVENT, REDUCE and REUSE at the top and RECYCLE, RECOVER and DISPOSE at the bottom, followed by another graphic emphasising the importance of upstream innovation. She also outlined a series of practical steps that food businesses can implement at their sites. 

Recycling only looks good when you compare it to landfill. We should be preventing SUP in the first place.

Waste management triangle – reducing outputs across all waste streams to push us
closer towards a circular economy

AWASH WITH PLASTICS

The next speaker was Dana Winogard who’s been organizing beach clean-ups at DB since 2007. She helped found the charity Plastic Free Seas that has reached more than 82,000 students in HK at over 230 schools. “We love bringing children to the beach so they can see the problem themselves.” Over 110 companies are now engaged with the programme. 

Dana noted that the local F&B industry is a big contributor to plastic waste in our seas and on the beaches. She emphasised the unique difficulties caused by polystyrene packaging and that all plastic eventually breaks down into micro-plastics (less than 5mm). Then highlighted that plastic extraction and production also has a major negative impact – not just its disposal.

She talked about the recent HK Government initiatives to reduce plastic usage in the long term and stressed the importance of reuse and BYO in the short term, with disposable coffee cups being “an obvious low-hanging fruit.”  She then highlighted Reuse Seattle (reuseseattle.org) as a city-wide pilot initiative that Hong Kong could learn from.

The local F&B industry is a major source of the plastic waste in our seas and beaches

REDUCING AND RECYLING DRINKS PACKAGING

Next to speak was Paul Zimmerman from Drink Without Waste, a broad coalition of stakeholders committed to reducing waste from beverages. They’ve set a target of recovering 90% of used beverage packaging in HK by 2025. 

Their strategies include:

1) Reduce – installing more water and beverage dispensers where consumers can refill their own bottle and promoting the BOYB concept

2) Recover – creating a convenient collection network for used plastic bottles with a simple reward scheme.

3) Redesign – improving packaging through better regulations

4) Recycle – by building state-of-the-art recycling facilities. 

During an 11-month pilot scheme they ran from Nov 2020 – Sep 2011, almost 50 million plastic bottles were recovered for recycling. The secret was incentivising Hong Kong’s army of cleaners and collectors who manage waste disposal in every building by giving them 5 cents for every plastic bottle they collected and separated. Paul argued that the city’s vast network of SMRFs (Small Material Recovery Facilities) have a vital role to play in recycling plastics. 

 

The ‘Drink without Waste’ campaign aims to reduce waste from beverages in Hong Kong

THE IMPORTANCE OF THINKING CLEARLY

The last speaker was Merrin Pearse from Coordinate4U. He began by highlighting how we’re currently moving from a LINEAR to a RECYCLING ECONOMY. Ultimately, though we must shift to a CIRCULAR ECONOMY where we rethink what we both make and take – so there’s no refuse to be dealt with.

 

A shift away from a linear economy towards a circular economy

Merrin pointed out that plastic is not inherently bad and can even have environmental benefits – for example, by storing edibles more efficiently, plastic packaging considerably reduces the amount of food waste. And when recycled in a closed-loop system, plastics are considerably less harmful. However, single-use plastics are doing enormous eco-damage. So it’s important to always focus on the real impact.

He then gave the example of Melco Resorts that was able to remove 15 million plastic bottles from tables by installing an onsite filtration and bottling plant. Merrin also recommended taking into account secondary or tertiary plastics. “For example, the focus is usually on the primary product. It’s the straw, it’s the stirrer, it’s the plastic cup…But what about all the packaging that goes around these…It could be a plastic bag that’s bundled in another plastic bag.”

This was followed by a thought-provoking Q&A session. The discussion around single-use plastics is set to run and run – for this is a topic that the whole world needs to urgently engage with. Visionary activists like our three speakers are highlighting the problem and showing the way forward. However, ultimately governments and corporations must step up and create the long-term policy changes and technical solutions to tackle plastic pollution.