All About Green

Is the Producer Responsibility Scheme for drinks cartons really coming up?

Original Chinese article published in Sing Tao Daily "Green Forum" (17 Feb, 2023)
Author: Green Power
Beverage carton collected in a recycling factory

As early as in 2016, Green Power pioneered the trial of drinks cartons recycling in Hong Kong, recognizing that drinks cartons account for 17% of all packaging materials of drinks in Hong Kong, which is the second highest. Adding with cartons for soups and corns and more, more than 22,000 tonnes of carton waste go to the landfill annually.  

Back then, the drinks cartons had to be exported for recycling. Our trail began in schools, and extended gradually to hotels, catering industry, theme park and finally the community. Consolidating for social support, we advocated to the government for the formulation of Producer Responsibility Scheme so that producers which profit from the sale of products must take up the duty to recycle the product packaging. This way a sustainable drinks cartons recycling chain can be built up in Hong Kong.

Now that seven years have passed and finally, we are seeing a light of hope. Earlier the Environmental Protection Department announced in a policy committee meeting under the Legislative Council Environmental Affairs Panel, drinks cartons will be included in the Producer Responsibility Scheme, together with plastic drinks containers. After waiting for so many years, we are of course happy to see this step forward, albeit many difficulties ahead to overcome.

The broken link in local recycling chain

The only drinks carton recycling plant in Hong Kong, Mil Mill, has a daily capacity of turning 50 tonnes of carton waste into wet pulp to be exported to recycling paper plant in South East Asia. However, at present only 3 tonnes of carton waste are collected each day. The upcoming policy would likely boost the recycling amount. Unfortunately, Mil Mill was forced to relocate and is still searching for a proper site to continue its operation. We may return to “zero recycling” anytime as Mil Mill shuts down.  

The rental lease of Mil Mill will end on the 30th June of this year. The government announced earlier that tender will be issued in the first quarter to handle drinks cartons starting the 1st of July. Drinks cartons cannot be exported directly but have to be made into wet pulp before export. It is really dubious whether a new recycling plant to make wet pulp can be up and running from scratch in this short 4-month period. We are curious why the government would not allow the existing plant to continue before the implementation of the Producer Responsibility Scheme. Doing so, the industry can continue to build experience and capacity for the full scale recycle of drink carton in the future.

The situation signifies a lack of long term and clear blueprint for drinks cartons recycling by the government. In our view, the government should designate special sites for recycling of specific objects (including drinks cartons and other recyclables of lower returns). Forget about short term tenancy lease. A longer term rental period encourages innovation and investment by recyclers. With increased recycling rate under the future Producer Responsibility Scheme, more recyclers will enter the market and help build a complete recycling chain in Hong Kong.

Public education is a long term effort

Recycling of drinks cartons is still new to the public, even though green groups and community groups have worked hard to promote it. We have commissioned university researcher to carry out telephone interview with over 2,000 members of the public. The result was disappointing - 72.3% of the respondents were not aware of drinks cartons recycling, or thought that the material could not be recycled in Hong Kong. The road ahead is long.

It takes time for the public to change their mindset and behaviors. The government should take the last chance to launch more public education of recycling of drinks cartons to go with plastic bottles and aluminium cans. As such, when the Producer Responsibility Scheme is legislated, the policy can be effectively implemented.

The clock is ticking

Looking back to the case of Producer Responsibility Scheme on glass beverage containers, it has taken 10 years from the consultation in 2013 to the final implementation in 2023 to complete. This is unacceptable at all. This time, the official target is to implement Producer Responsibility Scheme on plastic beverage containers and drinks cartons in 2025. We urge that Key Performance Indicators be set up by the government so that the public can monitor the progress and not to repeat past delay.

We have come to this point which is the fruitful effort from different groups, public and the recycling sector together. The bottom-up advocacy has made a good demonstration of policy change. We hope that the government should not waste the chance and it is indeed time to build a proper, sustainable recycling network in Hong Kong.