It is the end of 2021. In retrospect, the past year has reached a few milestones in waste reduction. The waste charging bill was finally in place. Public consultations on the Producer Responsibility Scheme (PRS) on Plastic Beverage Containers and the Scheme on Regulation of Disposable Plastic Tableware were completed. There might still be uncertainties in their implementation, but these are still steps forward in Hong Kong’s waste management policy.
In the last quarter of 2021, the Council for Sustainable Development launched the public engagement on control of single-use plastics, to collect public opinion on the control of items such as local product packaging, shopping bags, plastic/bubble wrap for logistics, umbrella bags, etc. Green Power definitely supports the control of single-use plastics. However, the consultation document—and the consultation itself—hint that it might be more empty talk than deeds.
Exemption for imported products?
The engagement document listed different types of single-use plastics to be regulated, including (1) local product packaging, (2) local retail packaging, and (3) local packaging for logistics and online shopping. “Local” seems to be the key word here. However, if only local products are targeted, it would create unfairness for local manufacturers and undermine the “export-oriented” economy of Hong Kong.
Hong Kong has long lost many of its local manufacturing industries. Most of the local consumption relies on imported products. As much as 95% of our food, for example, is imported. In other words, if we put restrictions on locally manufactured food packaging, we are only regulating 5% of all products. The effectiveness is basically nil.
Some members of the Council said that it will be difficult to regulate imported goods. In fact, importers and distributors are counted as “producers” under the principle of Producer Responsibility. In the Producer Responsibility Scheme on Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment, which is now fully in operation, importers and distributors are the main producers under regulation.
There are different ways to regulate imports to Hong Kong, if importers and distributers are put under regulation. For packaging with single-use plastic that can be avoided or substituted, the products should be banned altogether. If the packaging is unavoidable, the importers and distributors should enact recycle schemes for plastic under the law.
Plastic-bag levy unchanged for 12 years
There are quite a lot discussions on the plastic bag levy in the public consultation document. Among the 2,312 tonnes of plastic waste produced in Hong Kong each day, up to 34%, or 804 tonnes, are plastic bags. The lightness of plastic bags makes them easily carried by wind into the ocean or riverways, posing serious threats to the marine ecosystem. The government launched the first phase of plastic bag levy in 2009. The second phase started in 2015, which effectively changed much of the public habit in using plastic with active promotion of “bring your own shopping bag” at that time.
Nonetheless, after 12 years of implementation, the public has become used to the levy, which had been kept at the same level over the years. Adding to the big loophole of the exemption mechanism, the effectiveness of the policy tool has been much reduced. Usage of plastic bags has increased in recent years. Officials have indicated the intention to review the levy back in 2019 in media interviews, however, two years have passed and we are still waiting for the update. The Council for Sustainable Development is now again collecting public opinion on the proposed review; we cannot help but suspect this is a delaying tactic to avoid the actual action of raising the levy.
When will the legislation be tabled?
A point to note is that the public engagement exercise held by the Council for Sustainable Development is quite different from the public consultation carried out for government policies in the past. The present engagement is used for reference by the government only. The government has no obligation to accept any suggestions from the public.
Even after the completion of the exercise, it does not mean there will be corresponding a policy being set. Even if there is policy plan, the timing is long. We have seen that the Council for Sustainable Development carried out a public engagement campaign on waste charging in 2013. The related legislation was passed after a total of eight years. Hong Kong is now facing the plastic crisis; how can we wait another eight years?
We hope that the government will actively propose legislation on the control of single-use plastics and formulate a concrete and practical timetable for getting rid of plastics in Hong Kong. Act now to tackle the urgent issue of plastic waste!