All About Green

Drink Carton Recycling Cash Reward - What have we found?

Original Chinese article published in Sing Tao Daily “Green Forum” (9 Jul, 2021)
Author: Green Power
An old garbage picker is carrying a large bag of clean drink cartons that handed over from the district councilor’s office to her trolley

Last July, Green Power launched the Drink Carton Recycling Cash Rewards scheme, to encourage participation by all stake-holders in the upper, middle and lower ends of the recycling chain (including frontline workers such as waste pickers and cleaners, recycling shops and exporters). Different amounts are awarded to the different sectors, with 50 cents for each drink carton recycled. The objectives of the cash award scheme are threefold: to gauge the public response to recycling a novel item; to run a trial of the Producers Responsibility Scheme; and to provide support to the local recycling industry. A year has now passed, and what lessons have we learned?

Lack of public awareness

The first and foremost indicator in evaluating the scheme is the amount of recyclables collected. The scheme was launched at the beginning of last year, but was postponed to July due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Participation from restaurants and community recycling points was severely affected. Fortunately, recycled amounts slowly grew as the situation became somewhat under control. By the end of the 12-month period, a total of 7 tonnes of drink cartons had been collected.

Green Power has implemented a series of trial drink carton recycling schemes in different sectors including schools, hotels and the community since 2016. Later, the first local drink carton recycling factory was set up in 2019. We would think that we have done sufficient public education on the issue. However, in the telephone interviews of 2,000 people carried out by The Hong Kong Baptist University commissioned by Green Power, we were quite surprised to learn that 72.3% of the respondents are not aware of or do not think that recycling of drink cartons is possible locally. And it is not only the public that is sceptical; so is the recycling industry itself. When we invited recycling shops to join the cash reward scheme, many were unconvinced.

In the past few years, green groups and community groups have worked hard to advocate the recycling of drink cartons. The government, however, was basically absent from the scene. Drink cartons were not viewed as regular recyclables by the government. The item was only recently included in the Green @ Community recycling list, after years of persuasion by green groups and the public. It was very disappointing when the public consultation on “Producer Responsibility Scheme on Plastic Beverage Containers” came out earlier this year, as paper drink cartons were not included. Paper drink cartons rank second in beverage packaging, accounting for 17%, and each year 27,000 tonnes were thrown away. Is it simply being overlooked by the government? Without official recognition, recycling of paper drink cartons remains a challenging task.

A Win-Win Model

The Cash Award Scheme trial has shown great potential. It might also bring some inspiration to the local waste reduction policy. Apart from participation from conventional recycling industry, we have set up community recycling points at district councillors’ offices and restaurants to collect paper drink cartons from the public. When a certain amount is reached, the staff will contact waste pickers in nearby areas to carry the recyclables to recycling shops, where they will receive 50 cents per drink carton. After that, the cartons will be sent to exporters for handling before being transferred to the local recycling factory as the last stop.

The advantage of the model is that the existing network, human resources and hardware can be fully utilized without the need to open up new recycling channels or logistics. It creates a win-win situation: recyclables are properly collected, useful materials do not go to landfill as waste, waste pickers and recycling shops earn more income… perhaps more importantly, the model saves effort for waste pickers, who do not have to go around to search for the recyclables, while consumers (public and restaurants, etc) have to clean the recyclables before handing them in, which is also an act of respect to the waste pickers.

This is one way for a producer responsibility scheme to work. Producers provide the financial resources to support the existing recycling network. With community organisation, waste pickers can collect clean recyclables and earn their living. Resources are recycled and every party benefits.

In the last year, we have come into contact with many waste pickers. They are the most marginalised group in our society. It might be difficult to eliminate poverty at once. In fact, waste pickers constitute the foundation of Hong Kong’s recycling industry. Last month, the “Wastepicker Platform” released the results of a survey showing that 14% of waste pickers in Hong Kong work over 12 hours every day, and 54% earn less than $1,000 a month. We hope that instead of giving the recycling jobs to large contractors through tenders, the present frontline workers and recycling shops can be properly taken care of. This would certainly be the direction to go in a compassionate and reasonable society.