All About Green

Has the Plastic Beverage Containers PRS measured up to public expectation?

Original Chinese article published in Sing Tao Daily “Green Forum” (16 April, 2021)
Author: Green Power
A bundle of compressed plastic beverage containers bound by wire

For years, Green Power has campaigned for the Producer Responsibility Scheme on drinks containers – and the public has also longed for such scheme. In 2017, the HKSAR government commissioned a consultancy study on the topic. After a long wait of five years, the public consultation on Producer Responsibility Scheme (PRS) on Plastic Beverage Containers was finally out. Still, there are a lot to be pondered over.

Step by step? Or lack of vision?

The most disappointing about the latest public consultation is that only plastic beverage containers are regulated, whereas drink cartons are exempted. Drink carton ranks second and accounts for 17% of Hong Kong’s beverage market. Each year over 27,000 tonnes of paper waste are buried in the landfill. However, the issue was largely overlooked by the government with the excuse of lacking recycling facilities. In recent years, the first local pulp mill was set up with recycling facilities for drink cartons. It is only ironic that without the PRS in place, the recycling rate is hardly satisfactory: the daily recycling amount is less than 10 tonnes, or half the maximum capacity of 20 tonnes, whereas on the other hand, enormous amount of paper beverage containers are dumped in the landfill at the same time.

As we mentioned earlier, the government carried out the study for PRS on plastic containers in 2017. Five years have passed and it is still in the stage of consultation. If we look at the PRS on glass bottles, the consultation stage lasted from 2013 to 2016 when it finally passed the legislature yet still waiting to go into gazette. How long do we have to wait to see the legislation of PRS on drink carton?

In response to criticism, officials answered that the government would consider extending the PRS to other drinks packaging when conditions allow. We are quite curious whether the local paper carton recycling plant is counted as one such “condition”? And is it not the responsibility of the government to create suitable conditions? The local recycling plant has indicated that upon adjustment of the production line, the daily handling capacity can increase from the present 20 tonnes to 50 tonnes, which is two-thirds of the total waste amount in Hong Kong. There are different citizen-run recycling schemes. Green Power alone collected 15 tonnes of paper beverage cartons in the trial. The industry is getting ready. The public is getting ready. The call for recycling paper beverage containers is clear and loud. It is the government’s lack of will and determination to complete the PRS.

Deposit return or rebate? Are they the same?

The consultation document proposed a 10-cent rebate per plastic bottle returned to encourage the public to recycle. Suppose the retail price of a plastic bottled juice is $10, a 10-cent rebate is only 1% of the selling price. How many people will change their habit—if they do not already have the habit of recycling—for the minimal 10 cents?

Apart from the unattractive amount, the how-to-do-it is also an issue. Deposit-return is more effective in changing consumer behavior compared to rebate. Say for the $10 juice as example again, if we raise the economic incentive to 50 cents, $10 as the actual price and 50 cents as the deposit return, consumers have to pay $10.5 in total. However, the distinction is clear. Consumers know that the price of the juice is unchanged by returning the bottle. In the case of rebate, consumers only see the price increase but may not modify their behavior accordingly. In addition, when the two items are mixed together, producers can easily adjust the price and transfer the extra cost of recycling to consumers, which defies the principle of producer responsibility.

After the setting up of PRS, there are still a lot of details to be sorted out in the implementation. The consultation document emphasized a lot the use of Reverse Vending Machine (RVM). We are not opposed to the use of RVM, however, we should limit our reliance on it. The recycling network itself should be built wide and diverse. The existing network of street recycling shops and mobile recycling vehicles should be well utilized in support of local recycling industry.

As for the downstream of the recycled materials, we are all well aware of the potential impacts from outside the territory as Hong Kong has indeed faced several times of “paper jam crisis”. Therefore, it is essential that priority should go to local recycling and minimize reliance on export. Regulating the treatment of recycled materials is a way to stabilize and help develop the local recycling industry.

Setting up the PRS is an important milestone of Hong Kong’s waste reduction policy. We hope that the government will speed up the legislation process with more determination and vision and build up a well thought-out PRS system to tackle the long term waste problem in Hong Kong.