All About Green

Calling for comprehensive regulation of disposable plastic tableware

Original Chinese article published in Sing Tao Daily “Green Forum” (3 Sep, 2021)
Author: Green Power
Transparent plastic takeaway cup washed ashore by waves
Photo from Pixabay

The COVID-19 pandemic has been ongoing for more than a year, and we have entered a new “norm” of life: face masks, sanitizers, temperature monitors have become our daily necessity, as are takeaway meals. While the business of takeaway catering expands rapidly during the pandemic, the problem of disposable plastic waste that accompanies it poses a new challenge for the environment.

Mandate urgently needed before 2025 to tackle booming plastic waste

The journal Science has published a study concluding that nearly 30 million tonnes of plastic waste were leaked into natural water bodies globally over the past year. If no action is taken to remediate the situation, the figure will go up to 90 million tonnes by 2030, threatening the ecosystems of rivers, lakes and oceans. Disposable plastic tableware stands out among the plastic waste. In Hong Kong alone, among the 2,000 tonnes of daily plastic waste, 200 tonnes were disposable tableware, roughly equivalent to 14 billion plastic forks and knives per year. The situation will only worsen as the pandemic lingers.

Governments worldwide have mandated different measures to combat the plastic crisis. In Hong Kong, the government launched a 2-month public consultation on the Scheme on Regulation of Disposable Plastic Tableware in July this year. The consultation document suggested regulating plastic tableware in 2 phases. The first phase is the banning of the provision of expanded polystyrene (EPS) tableware, straws, stirrers, cutlery (such as forks, knives and spoons), and plates for dine-in and takeaway services; while cups, cup lids, food containers and food container covers would be banned in catering premises but are allowed in takeaway services. They would only be banned completely in the second phase. The first phase is expected to commence in 2025, whilst the implementation of the second phase seems remote, according to the consultation document.

Green groups including Green Power earlier released a survey report, showing that over 50% of disposable tableware used in restaurants and the catering industry in Hong Kong belong to those regulated in the second phase. In other words, even after the commencement of regulations in 2025, the unregulated disposable plastic tableware still amounts to 7 billion pieces per year! What is worse, there is yet to be a timetable for the implementation of the second phase. It is a big question as to when the enormous, ever-growing amount of disposable waste will be under control.

Looking to other places around the world, many have taken steps way ahead of the Hong Kong government. For example, in Australia, the sale of straws and cutlery is prohibited starting this year and other disposable tableware such as cups, bowls and plates will also be outlawed next year. In France, banning of plastic cups and plates came into effect in 2020, and straws and cutlery are being regulated this year. In China, styrofoam utensils and straws are banned this year.… Hong Kong is lagging way behind by launching a mere consultation so far. In face of the urgency of the plastic waste problem, and to catch up with other countries around the world, we oppose the phasing of implementation and call for the complete banning of all disposable plastic tableware no matter whether in catering premises or for takeaway.

In addition, consideration should also be given to disposable plastic tableware substitutes, such as “paper cups” and “paper cartons”. These are in fact made from composite materials that contain plastics. During decomposition, these products may release microplastics and pollute the environment. At the same time, they are more difficult to recycle than plastic products. The recycling industry lacks sufficient support in handling these materials. Hence, disposable tableware that contains plastic constituents should also be regulated.

The core issue is our “throw-away” culture

When we talk about disposable plastic tableware, the core of the issue is the “throw-away” culture rather than the “plastic”. Disposable tableware, made up of any material, will add a burden to the environment and result in “pollution transfer” upon their disposal not to mention the energy consumption and carbon emissions during the production process….

Apart from encouraging the habit of “bring your own tableware”, the government should invest in the development of a “rental platform for reusable tableware”. Operation is easy: when people order takeaway at any restaurant, a deposit can be paid for the use of tableware. After the meal, the tableware can be returned to any convenience store or restaurant without cleaning. The deposit is then refunded to the customer. The platform is responsible for the transport, cleaning, and distribution of the tableware. The whole process is clean and convenient. Trials of this type of platform are rolling out in Taiwan – a valuable experience we may learn from.

Plastic pollution is a global environmental challenge. The Hong Kong government must step up its efforts to stipulate a plastic reduction policy and legislation. Time is up for us to make a plastic free world.