On boxing day, I went to PMQ to watch the excellent but heartbreaking documentary film “Plastic China“. The film depicts a village in Shan Dong province which has numerous primitive plastic recycling plants processing plastic waste imported from all over the world. The protogonists are the owner of one of these tiny factories, his employee (minority migrant worker from far away Sichuan province) and their families. The migrant worker cannot afford to send his children to school, so they hang out on the piles of filthy plastic waste all day, go to scoop dead fish from a super polluted stream, and roast them on a fire fueled by burning plastic. The owner’s son can go to school, however the owner himself has sacrificed his health by operating the open “flame cooker” that turns the waste into plastic granules. He feels a lump on his lower back but he dares not to go for a medical checkup for fear of what he will find. In fact both the employer and the employee live in hell like situation. It is said that the release of this film and the ensuing loss of face, caused the Chinese government to severely restrict the importation of plastic waste beginning in 2018. From now on, only recycled plastic that has been turned into granular form can be imported into China.
One day after I watched the film, the Environmental Protection Department (EPD) released the report Monitoring of Solid Waste in Hong Kong 2016 at 6 p.m. in the evening. It turns out that the daily disposal of PET (drink) bottles at landfills in Hong Kong has increased from 136 to 158 tonnes when compared to the 2015 figure – a stunning 16% increase in one year. At this rate the amount of PET plastic entering our landfills will double in just over 4 years. No wonder the EPD chose to release the report quietly by close of business right after the Christmas holiday. With the above mentioned China restriction coming into effect, it is expected that the disposal of PET bottles at landfills will shoot up even further.
One day after the EPD released this report, the Guardian, in its article entitle “$180bn investment in plastic factories feeds global packaging binge” reported that:
“Fossil fuel companies are among those who have ploughed more than $180bn since 2010 into new “cracking” facilities that will produce the raw material for everyday plastics from packaging to bottles, trays and cartons. The new facilities – being built by corporations like Exxon Mobile Chemical and Shell Chemical – will help fuel a 40% rise in plastic production in the next decade…”
This reminds me of the so-called environmental friendly marketing campaign initiated by Shell Hong Kong a month or two ago which encouraged the public to use reusable cutlery/ lunch boxes/ water bottles. While globally Shell is investing billions of US dollars to produce more plastic at a cheaper price, locally it is spending merely millions of HK dollars to buy “green groups” and launch this greenwash campaign. The level of hypocrisy and ridiculousness involved makes you unsure whether you should cry or laugh.
The EPD has commissioned a 18 months consultancy study on a plastic bottles manufacturers’ responsibility policy and has said that it may adopt the bottle deposit scheme. To ensure that government policy does not adversely affect their business interests, the beverage industry has also reacted by forming a working group (a thinly veiled lobbying group) called “Drink Without Waste” with leading retailers (e.g. Dairy Farm – the operator of 7-11, Ikea, Wellcome, etc) and a few business-friendly green groups, and hiring Deloitte to conduct a 6 months study. In view of the grim situation for plastic waste and the bright prospects for plastic production, I opine that plastic bottles manufacturers’ responsibility means that they have to bear the full cost of collecting and recycling each and every bottle that they have manufactured. The government has to impose a tax on virgin plastic to the extent that it will cost marginally more than recycled plastic. This will drive demand up for recycled plastic, ensuring that every bottle is collected before it pollutes our oceans and lands for generations to come. Other methods will incur high administrative costs, encourage gaming of the system to shift the burden from producers to taxpayers, and result in inefficiencies. In a free market economy, the best and most proven solution (think cigarettes) is to tax this cancer to the planet.