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Hong Kong’s only drink carton recycler faces eviction as government’s policy lacks vision and consistency

Original Chinese article published in Sing Tao Daily "Green Forum" (30 Sep, 2022)
Author: Green Power

The latest news regarding the eviction of the only drinks cartons recycling plant in Hong Kong has sparked a wave of criticism. This not only concerns the recycler going out of business, but also an issue that’s crucial to society as a whole.

Mil Mill, the only local paper pulp mill in Hong Kong, has been processing about 100 tonnes of waste paper per month for about three years. A drink carton is made of a composite comprising paper, plastic and an aluminium layer. Mainland China has already banned the import of such waste. Exports to other countries also meet great difficulties. In Hong Kong, a total of over 24,000 tonnes of paper drink carton waste are generated annually, and Mil Mill is so far the only outlet for the waste. Unfortunately, its landlord – Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation – recently announced it would not renew the lease with Mil Mill, with the excuse of a “re-industrialisation” plan. Mil Mill is likely to soon have to stop operations.

Piecemeal recycling policy

Last year, the government announced the Waste Blueprint for Hong Kong 2035, which set out to reduce the per capita municipal solid waste disposal rate by 40 to 45% and raise the recovery rate to about 55%. There are also initiatives to build up a territory-wide recycling network, such as the community green stations and green stores. Nonetheless, without the downstream recycling facilities, all efforts in the upstream collection would be in vain.

We still remember that in lobbying legislators to pass the bill on municipal solid waste charging, government officials pledged that the public would, through recycling, “dump less, save more”. Yet after a year, all the talk became a false promise. How can the public save more as the only paper drink cartons recycling channel is closed? How can the public “dump less” when they have no choice but to dump recyclables into rubbish bins? A lot of resources and efforts have been spent to mobilise the public to support clean recycling over the past three years. Once the habit is broken, it will never be easy to re-establish it again.

On the other hand, the Producer Responsibility Scheme (PRS) on plastic beverage containers is being formulated, while the PRS on glass bottles has already been passed in the Legislative Council. Paper drink carton is the second most abundant drinks package in Hong Kong, accounting for about 17% of the market. It is most discouraging at the time when we are looking forward to the extension of the PRS to cover paper drink cartons that the only recycling plant is forced to close down. The relevant PRS will fail to be implemented. Will this give a chance for beverage producers to switch to carton packaging to avoid the levy? Are we stepping away from the goal of waste reduction?

It is also frustrating to learn that the Environmental Protection Department (EPD), in response to media enquiries, said it was not aware of the situation of Mil Mill. Is this just a reflection of fragmented government policies, or does it show the government’s preference for the option of waste incineration over waste reduction and recycling? When the government first announced adopting “waste to energy” incineration as a means of decarbonising, environmental groups naturally questioned whether the ultimate aim would be to reduce waste, or have more waste to generate energy? (The inconvenient fact is, incineration will only generate more carbon emissions.)

Empty words on encouraging technological innovation

The land lease incident of Mil Mill also dealt a blow to all the beautiful words of the government on encouraging technological innovation in the recycling sector. It takes years of hard work and resources to start up an industrial plant—from sourcing funds, selecting a site, procuring and installing machinery, designing and implementing the production chain… Does it make any sense if the lease period lasts only a few years? The incident sent a terribly negative message to the industry, and certainly damaged the industry’s confidence in any future investment.

The EPD stated that paper pulp plant in the future EcoPark in Tuen Mun would increase capacity for recycling local paper drink cartons. Again this showed that the government officials were not familiar with operation of the recycling sector. The treatment capacity of the pulp plant is 300,000 tonnes of paper waste per annum, but the overall waste paper in Hong Kong totals more than 1.41 million tonnes; the “three types of waste paper” (paperboard, newspapers and office papers) alone account for 390,000 tonnes, far exceeding the capacity of the pulp plant. Secondly, even if the machinery of the pulp plant could handle paper drink cartons, the cartons have to be separately treated and not mixed with other paper waste. Now the question would be: is it financially attractive for the plant to give up on the “three types of waste paper” and spare a production line to treat the paper drink cartons which are less profitable?

In Hong Kong, the close proximity of the city to nature has always been our pride. Unfortunately, we are seeing all kinds of works around or even within the countryside. The issue of noise pollution in the wild merits our attention. The government and academics should earmark more resources to study the impacts of urban noise on wildlife and rural ecology, focusing on species that are more sensitive to noise. Besides, noise mitigation measures to protect animals should also be adopted in land works, taking reference to the protocol of marine works.

We are only fortunate to have Mil Mill, the visionary entrepreneur that took the lead to make paper drink cartons, which were originally dumped in the landfills, became a major recyclable. Is it time for the government to provide a more reasonable business environment for the industry? On the other hand, the Singapore government has already sent invitation for Mil Mill to move its operations over. Without more support for our local industry, we will losing not only money, but will see negative ramifications for the environment and the health of Hong Kong people in the long run.

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