Food Packaging in Hong Kong: Zero Waste VS. Plastics

By Angelynn, Natalie & Silke

You can’t look on Facebook nowadays without seeing videos of people promoting their zero waste lifestyle. The trend and lifestyle form has become a concept worldwide. But just to clarify here it is in a nutshell. Zero waste living is, as the name states, a form of living where a household produces no (or as little as possible) waste. Now this may seem obvious, but there is a lot more to it than buying shampoo that isn’t in a bottle.

Everything in our households practically comes in a package. Soda, meat (on a tray), bag of grapes, toothpaste are just a few that we encounter in a home. Replacing everything in packaging for durable long lasting containers is as you can imagine, quite a commitment. So how do you go about not buying packaging? In the supermarket it’s basically become impossible, especially in Hong Kong. Fruits are often wrapped in 3 layers of plastic, per individual piece. Meat is always packaged. Toilet paper is packaged, and even a bag of rice that takes half a year to finish is packaged.

 

Zero Waste Food Stores

Trends being trends, they are picked up and catered to by the economy of demand and supply. Zero waste food stores are now available in almost every developed country.  What sets these stores apart is the fact that you have to bring the “packaging” yourself. Zero waste stores, also named bulk stores, having everything in bulk. Instead of having 300 packages of pasta, they have one big container that you can scoop the amount that you want out of and into your own container, eliminating the need for extra packaging. Things that are packaged are often in biodegradable paper packages. Some of these stores even go as far as having homemade deodorant in bulk that you can take home. Zero waste stores help people live with minimally harming the environment around us.

The owner of Edgar, one of the biggest zero waste stores explained what he does and why it’s important.

Video filmed and edited by Natalie Ng

In Europe and the US these stores have already made a mark in the supermarket industry. In Asia however, these stores are often small and hidden and little is done to promote them in local public spheres. Hong Kong being a worldly city, has started gaining its fair share of these stores. Not only are zero waste stores catering towards food here, but also beauty products and other product specific stores.

Locations of different zero waste or bulk stores all over Hong Kong:

This feat is allowing Hong Kong tackle the plastic waste at a consumer level. While NGOs might be changing the minds of governments and their policies and universities the perspectives towards the environment, Zero Waste as a concept and as an industry helps people take action immediately, simply by changing the store they do groceries at. While on a long term scale policy change and a fundamental change in culture is also vital, zero waste living (or an attempt to) is a good first step.

The idea of removing plastic in its whole offers a more valid incentive to become greener as well. Hong Kong’s plastic waste in landfills has increased by 25% since 2005, allowing plastic to become the 3rd largest category of waste. This habit of buying and discarding single use plastic has no apparent sign of stopping. Replacing plastic with paper will not help kick the habit that Hong Kong has regarding throwing away waste easily. Zero Waste helps take out the mediator and move to a greener future, without plastic.

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NGOs

NGOs in Hong Kong have already realized the detrimental impact of plastic pollution on our mother earth. As such, they are working hard to prevent and eliminate it. Green Sense is one of the NGO dedicated to enhancing the environmental consciousness in the society. Its Senior Project Manager, Gabrielle, stressed the importance of reducing waste at source. ‘Products are excessively packaged in order to promote or sell a higher price, especially in festivals like the upcoming Christmas.’ She hoped that the public is aware of the useless packaging and hence choosing environmentally friendly products. After all, habit matters more. Gabrielle raised the example of the Taiwanese drink which is overwhelming recently. Disposable cups with plastic lid and straws are common practice in these Taiwanese drink stores. ‘Some environmentalist will bring their own cup and use the reusable straws. It takes you 5 minutes to clean and it costs less!’

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The ‘No Straw’ campaign is launched by the Ocean Park Conservation Foundation this year. The campaign has teamed up with more than 830 local restaurants, educational institutions, as well as restaurants outlets from around 20 major chains, including Café de Coral Group, Tai Hing Catering Group, KFC and Yoshinoya, to draw the public to action. Restaurants and schools will not provide straws to their customers or students. In light of the scheme, the public is discontented with the absence of straws especially when they are drinking cold drinks in ice. ‘There must be alternatives to plastic straws. Paper straw is one of the options. Most of the people do know the damage of plastic use, but they are lazy to adapt to a new lifestyle,’ Gabrielle said.

greensense
Research on dine-in disposable utensils in Hong Kong food court (Photo from Green Sense)

Green Sense has organized talks, workshops, and eco-tours to arouse the environmental sense among the public. They have specifically dedicated to researches. For instance, a survey of dine-in disposable utensils in Hong Kong food court has been done in May 2018.  Based on the survey, a “Green Utensils Star Programme” was set up to rate the restaurants on the performances of disposables usage. The average consumption of disposable items for each person at each restaurant was calculated. Such a rating will let the public know more about the environmental performance of the restaurants. It is also an indication for the restaurant in practicing “zero plastic”. ‘However, restaurants always have excuses not to practice “zero plastic”, such as hygiene concerns,’ Gabrielle said.

Concerning the governmental efforts, Gabrielle thought that the current soft measures have not been as effective as hoped. ‘It is not easy for the public to build a green sense. The education process is effective yet slow. It is a good start to launch the Municipal Solid Waste Charging Scheme hopefully by 2022 since money talks.’ Gabrielle also talked about the examples from Taiwan and Japan, where children are instilled with the green ideas back to kindergarten time. ‘Not only say it, but we also have to do it together. Starting from the reduction in source to reuse and recycle, children should practice their green sense together with their families.’

Gabrielle was glad to see that more Hongkongers are having green sense, as they will bring their own utensils and even go to zero waste stores. ‘That’s touching to see our efforts in education transformed into environmentally friendly actions.’

Universities

Apart from social organizations like NGOs, student parties in Hong Kong are also making efforts to the reduction of plastics. The Sustainability Office of the University of Hong Kong launched a campus-wide campaign to reduce plastic waste by targeting disposable plastic items by stop distributing or selling single-use plastic water bottles of one liter or less. On the week of March 12 2018, all eight universities in Hong Kong launched a No Straw Week which saved an estimated 76,653 disposable straws from landfills. Following the success of the campaign, the University of Hong Kong released a ban on single-use plastic straws at all catering outlets on campus from September 3 this year. Reactions towards such events have been quite positive in general, where one of the biggest supporters is the Students Union at HKU, helping to trickle down to other societies and students groups.

In local culture, especially during Festivals like Lunar New Year and Mid-Autumn Festivals, rice cakes, mooncakes, even fruits are wrapped up in several layers and packaged with ribbons or fancy boxes. You barely see someone send fruits or any other kind of food simply in paper bags because it will be considered as not proper and without manner. To combat such culture, explained by Maegan Cowan, project manager at the Sustainability Team of the University of Hong Kong, is that “we are doing, as an alternative, is that it’s cool.” Nice designs of water bottles, fancy shiny straws are sold at eco-friendly stores to attract audiences. This year, the Sustainability Team hand it out reusable straws in pretty designs, in a way offering something people would ask for instead of an “alternative”.

We read about eco-friendly plastics everywhere. There are two types of eco-friendly plastics: biodegradable and compostable. Biodegradable plastics mean they can be broken down, but that might suggest they can be broken down into smaller pieces while they are still there. Compostable plastics such as PLA and PHB is a different thing, which is made by more organic materials like corn, most used for food packaging. Such plastics can be composed back into organic matter when treated in industrial composters, thus usually considered as eco-friendly plastics. Some might argue that zero waste has gone too far while Hong Kong people value convenience and fast pace of lifestyles, that they might not be willing to carry containers to grocery stores, and this is where the choice of compostable plastics come into priority.

It is true that such compostable plastics are commonly used in European and other developed countries, Hong Kong is no exception. However, the large-scale facilities available in Hong Kong are not able to, unlike European countries, compost these compostable plastics. Today, Hong Kong Organic Resources Recovery Center (ORRC) applies anaerobic organic waste digestion system, while compositions of these plastics work more efficiently under aerobic environments. One point to add is that the ORRC actually do not compost any packaging because it is too difficult to differentiate them. “This is why we just want to get rid of the plastics on campus instead of promoting the later”, said Cowan.