Support and Clarity are Crucial to the Well-intentioned Disposable Plastic Tableware Regulation
Updated: Oct 8, 2021
From the publication of the alarming IPCC Sixth Assessment Report, we learnt again that climate change is happening faster than previously thought. Without ambitious carbon emissions reduction goals and drastic measures, global temperatures will likely reach or exceed 1.5oC warming in two decades. While human activities are unequivocally warming the global climate system since pre-industrial times, industrial sectors such as fossil fuel production and distribution, agriculture, and waste management are more significantly responsible for methane emissions than the rest.
The Hong Kong government’s call for the regulation of disposable plastic tableware (and the Legco’s recent approval of the Municipal Waste Charging Scheme), therefore, is largely welcome by the sustainability-concerned community, not least because the whole lifecycle of petrochemical plastics - from resource extraction to manufacturing and recycling - results in a considerable amount of carbon emissions. However, factors such as the timeline, availability of alternatives as well as supporting infrastructure and subsidies, clear communication from the government and the Environmental Protection Department (EPD) to all involved play a critical role in easing the transition for the hospitality and F&B sector that is affected by the regulation.
That led GREEN Hospitality to organise an Open Think Tank for the Consultation on Disposable Plastic Tableware on 26 August 2021, where Helga Vanthournout, Senior Advisor of Eat Without Waste, and Woody Chan, CSR & Sustainability Manager of foodpanda, shared their insight and recommendations at a panel moderated by Director of GREEN Hospitality, Lucia Loposova. We have consolidated the knowledge and recommendations exchanged at the panel discussion and the breakout sessions here, and we urge the Hong Kong government to consider the concerns and challenges expressed by representatives of the hospitality and F&B sector, sustainability consultants and solution-providers, sustainable product suppliers, and environmental conservation groups. Participants at our Open Think Tank voted unanimously in support of the government’s proposed regulation of disposable plastic tableware. By addressing industry practitioners’ pain points, the government can better expedite the waste reduction and resource circulation actions and goals set forth in the EPD’s Waste Blueprint for Hong Kong 2035.
The Ban is Urgent, But More Caution is Needed to Consider Factors Affecting a Smooth Transition
In 2019, Hong Kong generated approximately 2,320 tonnes of plastic waste every day, accounting for about 21% of municipal solid waste (MSW) disposal at the city’s landfills. Amounting to 200 tonnes per day, plastic tableware came second after plastic bags in terms of the main types of plastic waste. For context, that is equivalent to roughly 14.6 billion pieces of plastic cutlery being disposed of throughout the year, representing about 1,940 pieces per person.
That all 25 participants at our Open Think Tank voted in support of the phasing out of disposable plastic tableware demonstrates the high level of awareness of plastic pollution in the hospitality and F&B sector. These businesses already show an interest in supporting cradle-to-cradle waste reduction and circularity in their food, packaging, and operations - many have taken the lead to do exactly that, despite the additional operational costs incurred. However, Helga Vanthournout and Woody Chan added that improving the efficiency of the local recycling system remains crucial.
Concerns surrounding the timeline were expressed during the panel and separate breakout sessions. Some participants said that the ban needs to be enforced sooner than 2025, especially since some F&B businesses are already bearing the additional cost to provide reusable and biodegradable tableware, and our swift responses towards the COVID-19 pandemic is proof that national leaders, businesses, civil society, and citizens are capable of mitigating crises. On the other hand, some participants are concerned with the logistical and infrastructural challenges as a result of the blanket plastic ban, uncertainty about the availability of alternatives, as well as the time it takes for behavioural change.
Innovation for Alternatives and Their Respective Waste Stream: The frequent consumption of hot and oil food in Hong Kong poses a unique challenge for the development of plastic alternatives that are leak-proof, said Helga, who added, “If we put a ban in place, we take away the pathway for innovation around something that might fit the bill. We can and should regulate biodegradables. We should ban oxo-plastic. But we should leave the door open for innovations.” This is echoed by a sustainable cutlery supplier, who said that more time is needed to innovate products and allow for economies of scale to bring the price of the products down. But innovation is only the first step. Developing their respective waste streams is just as crucial to waste reduction and material circularity, said Woody.
Infrastructure: Banning disposable plastic tableware does not mean we can put the inefficiency of the local recycling system on the back burner. As we have written previously, more transparency and accountability is needed at the various government bureaux that oversee the proper recycling of waste, to ease the financial and operational burden of the F&B outlets that are covering the outstanding costs for proper waste treatment and recycling. As a participant pointed out, waste-to-energy facilities such as the O · PARK are being under-utilised as real estate developers are not cross-collaborating on waste management systems to improve cost and logistical efficiency by using the same collection service. The government’s lack of clear communication and facilitation of broad collaboration results in a huge loss in opportunities.
A sustainable cutlery provider present at our Open Think Tank said that the company is currently only partnering with restaurants that directly have private composting pipelines. To increase industry buy-in for the ban, composting facilities (for food waste and compostable packaging and tableware) will need to be built and located where they can be accessed at a relatively low cost.
Likewise, infrastructure needs to apply for the implementation of centralised reusable systems. Food delivery service providers such as foodpanda are looking to offer food delivery in reusable boxes, which customers can return at designated points to be collected and cleaned, and a similar system is already adopted by Muuse, We Use Tableware Rental Service, Drink Without Waste, and Circular City’s Choose: Reuse. A centralised collection system and cleaning kitchen are crucial to increasing convenience for both customers and businesses, and it can streamline operations and minimise costs for these businesses and civil society organisations. In fact, for many F&B operators, the absence of an infrastructure to support the cleaning and washing of used products is the main reason for using single-use products.
Education, Transparent Communication, and Behavioural Change: F&B owners do not have the additional bandwidth on top of day-to-day operations to adapt to changing policies, and this is reflected in foodpanda’s recent survey of its partner restaurants, which found that many are not aware of what “sustainable packaging” really means. At this stage, the government has not provided a conclusive list of alternative tableware of packaging that can be properly recycled or treated in Hong Kong. The foodpanda survey also revealed that the majority of its partners support measures to combat plastic pollution, and from our Waste Deep research, we learnt that the majority of hospitality and F&B outlets are keen to opt for compostable packaging. However, without clear and transparent communication from the government on acceptable alternatives and their respective suppliers, hospitality and F&B practitioners will struggle to comply with the regulation, despite having the best of intentions.
Informational materials that communicate the urgency of a plastic ban, as well as what individuals can do to contribute towards waste reduction, can not only educate F&B owners, their employees and customers but also the community at large to induce widespread behavioural and mindset change.
Financial Concerns: Costs and margins are tight, based on conversations that a reusable cup rental service provider had with F&B owners and event organisers. This can affect the level of compliance since businesses are uncertain about which type of alternative tableware and packaging to switch to, and are therefore unable to factor in the additional costs. However, there is not a dearth of F&B businesses that are already actively taking waste reduction and recycling initiatives and bearing the additional expenses. These businesses are case studies that sustainable dining and takeaway is possible, and government subsidies that help offset the additional expenses can promote a greater ripple effect throughout the industry, which in turn drives economies of scale for sustainable products and recycling business, thereby creating a virtuous cycle of sustainable practices.
Government Support Needed to Help Ease the Hospitality and F&B Industry’s Transition
There is a consensus on regulating and phasing out disposable plastic tableware among participants at GREEN Hospitality’s recent Open Think Tank, including representatives of the hospitality and F&B sector, sustainability consultants and solution-providers, sustainable product suppliers, and environmental conservation groups. While opinions regarding the timeline varied, more pertinent to the discussions were the availability of government support to ease the transition for the hospitality and F&B sectors.
We urge the Hong Kong government to consider the challenges and recommendations that we have consolidated below, and work proactively with the hospitality and F&B sector, civil society organisations, innovators, academia, and the society at large to address the challenges, in order to facilitate a sustainable consumption culture aligned with circularity principles.
Subsidies (or Other Funding Support) Should be Provided to:
F&B operators to cover the additional costs incurred from purchasing and recycling sustainable alternatives;
Providers of reusables to cover the additional costs for cleaning and logistics, as well as land permit for establishing collection points;
Plastic alternative suppliers for business and product development to reach economies of scale and bring the price down;
Entrepreneurs, innovators, and civil society organisations to research and develop viable plastic alternatives.
Infrastructure Building and Enhancement:
New infrastructure needs to be built for composting to facilitate the adoption of plastic alternatives, as well as to achieve the government’s goal of “zero landfill” by 2035.
Existing recycling infrastructure and periphery services need to be enhanced to improve recycling efficiency, such as expanding collection points for mixed plastics.
Facilities such as centralised cleaning kitchens need to be built to support the reuse system.
Information Sharing and Communication:
The government should create a database of approved alternatives and their biodegradability and compostability, source of materials, approved suppliers and their credentials, and the database needs to be updated regularly.
The government should enforce the truth of advertising, instead of leaving it to hospitality and F&B operators to verify the advertising claims by self-proclaimed sustainable product suppliers.
The government can consider developing an easily accessible database for consumers to identify the F&B outlets that are already on board with the new regulation, in order to promote broader industry adoption and behavioural change.
The government should make all educational and informative materials related to the regulation of disposable plastic tableware easily accessible.
The same transparency and accessibility is needed when the government communicates information about the infrastructure currently available and soon to be made available for waste recycling and treatment, such as the I • PARK, which is expected to commence operation by 2025, with a capacity to turn 3,000 tonnes of municipal solid waste into electricity daily. This can help businesses plan and budget for their sustainability strategies.
Facilitating Broad, Cross-sector Collaboration:
The government should facilitate cross-sector collaboration to connect big players with smaller players in the hospitality and F&B sector, as well as real estate owners, to streamline the collection and delivery of waste materials to waste recovery facilities. This can lower logistics costs across sectors, and optimise the utilisation rate of existing and future facilities that can turn waste into valuable resources.
What We Can All Do to Contribute to Waste Reduction in Hong Kong
To quote a participant at the Open Think Tank, “Attaching value to our trash needs to be part of a broader policy approach,” and this applies to the broader community as well. Recognise and utilise the power of community to rid Hong Kong of its throwaway culture. Individuals - whether employees from the same office or office building, neighbours from the same area, educators and learners from the same school - can start their sustainability community. Run regular talks and workshops to educate participants on waste issues, hold discussions to learn the challenges people face when trying to live sustainably and set realistic waste reduction goals. Talk to real estate and restaurant managers etc. to provide BYO incentives such as discounts, for instance, or reach out to community composting projects. A unified voice holds a lot of sway. Start taking small steps to create a habit of living sustainably, influence the people around you, create a community, and push forward the agenda to create more change.
If you have not submitted your opinions on the Hong Kong government’s Scheme on Regulation of Disposable Plastic Tableware yet, please do it here by 8 September 2021.