Carton-packed lemon tea, soy milk, malt soy milk … these are among the favourite drinks of many Hong Kong people, who grow up with them. However, we may not be aware of the hidden waste problem of these drinks in cartons: every year as many as 43,000 tonnes of drink cartons are thrown away, i.e. on average we each dispose of 1.5 drink cartons each day. Annually, this waste could cover an area equivalent to 6,179 Hong Kong Stadiums, and require over HKD 20 million of public expenditure to handle.
A drink carton is made up of paper, plastic and aluminium. Hence it cannot be recycled as conventional waste paper. In the past, all drink cartons were sent to the landfill as refuse in Hong Kong. Yet all around the world there are examples of recycling programmes, e.g. in Taiwan and Japan, the recycling rate of drink cartons are 30% and 40%, respectively. In 2016, Green Power launched a recycling programme in Hong Kong, starting from primary schools and then covering restaurants in hotels and theme parks. In July 2018, the programme was extended to the community. Today, there are 17 community recycling points in Hong Kong, which are the only channels for drink carton recycling. Within a short period of 5 months, over one tonne of drink cartons was collected, indicating a high demand for drink carton recycling among the public.
Besides reducing the pressure on landfills and saving resources, Green Power hopes to advocate producer responsibility through the recycling programme. Producers should bear responsibility for the full life cycle of their products, which includes manufacturing as well as the recycling and handling of the products after use. For all these years, the major manufacturers of carton-pack drinks have allowed their waste products to be dumped in the landfills, and transferred the environmental responsibility to the public. How is that responsible?
Categorising the drink cartons collected from the community recycling points in four weeks, Green Power found that 73.5% were from Vitasoy, followed by Swire Coca-Cola HK and Nestle HK, which accounted for 9.1% and 8%, respectively. The figures clearly showed that Vitasoy is the biggest drink carton producer in Hong Kong, and it has the top duty to recycle its products!
As the recycling value of drink cartons is low at present, Green Power has to pay a handling fee to the recycler. On the other hand, many recycling points (e.g. “Waste-No-Mall” in various districts) are run by enthusiastic citizens. Meanwhile, some recyclers have purchased specialised machines in an attempt to realise local recycling of drink cartons. Each machine can handle up to 3,650 tonnes of drink cartons each year. They are expected to be in operation by mid-2019. Green groups, community groups and the recycling sector have been working hard for the recycling of drink cartons. In contrast, the producers have their duty long overdue!
It is certainly the case that the government should regulate producers through the Producer Responsibility Scheme. Nonetheless, legislation is a rather slow process. Look at the example of glass containers. It took more than a decade for the Producer Responsibility Scheme for glass containers to be in place. The producers can conveniently step back and let their waste fill up the landfills within this period of time! To let Vitasoy be clear about the public expectations regarding its environmental responsibility, Green Power earlier issued a joint public letter with 26 citizen groups including the community groups that are helping with the community recycling points and waste concern groups, urging Vitasoy to immediate show its sincerity by recycling its own drink carton waste.
At the time of writing, there are two pieces of news that worth sharing with readers. The major drink producers have just issued a joint waste reduction objective to recycle 70-90% of plastic and paper cartons by 2025. We hope that this is a first step to achieving the full recycling objective. The second news is that the main potato chips producer in England – WALKERS – has announced a recycling program for its product packaging. This is the result of #PacketInWalkers – an online campaign that protested against the company’s promise of making its packaging material recyclable by 2025. Netizens mailed back the packaging to the company with a note saying, ‘Your company produces 4 billion packets each year. It is non-sense to wait till 2025. Please handle your waste now!’