A few weeks ago, Gary Stokes was grocery shopping with his son when the young boy said: “Dad, everything’s in plastic.”
As the Southeast Asia director of conservation group Sea Shephard, Stokes knows very well where the packaging eventually ends up after it serves its purpose. “Somehow, one way or another, it ends up in the ocean or in the landfill,” he said.
So they decided to show the supermarket how ridiculous and unnecessary the excessive packaging for fruits and vegetables was. They went to the checkout, paid, then Stokes unwrapped the produce from the shrink wrap, styrofoam, bags, plastic trays and plastic cases, and left it on the counter.
That was the beginning of his Trashthecheckout Facebook page, which he hopes will become a global movement putting pressure on supermarkets to reduce packaging.
With its beaches swamped by trash and landfills soon to reach full capacity, nowhere is the trash problem more real, more imminent than in Hong Kong.
But the trash on the city’s doorstep seems starkly at odds with the amount of plastic encasing food staples at the supermarket. Consumers have complained about the shiny cling film and plastic trays encasing most products on supermarket shelves, including even produce with “natural skins” like onions, bananas, and apples.
According to the latest statistics released by the government, the average resident produced 1.39kg of municipal solid waste per day in 2015 – a 3 per cent rise from the year before and the highest level in 10 years. The increase was attributed to an increase in commercial and industrial waste, which was a mark of a strong domestic and external demand for commercial consumption, the government said.
Plastic comprised 20.9% of domestic waste and 24.8 per cent of commercial and industrial waste in 2015. Plastic classified as “other” – which includes packaging materials, toys and scraps – comprised 9.5 per cent of domestic waste and 12.7 per cent of commercial and industrial waste. About 800,000 tonnes of plastic ended up in landfills in 2015, up 8.9 per cent from 2014.
This month, a single strawberry nestled in styrofoam and packing material inside a plastic-covered box at a luxury Hong Kong supermarket caused an international furore, bringing the packaging problem to the forefront.
The pressure on supermarkets is ramping up, with local consumers recently renewing calls for supermarkets to reduce their plastic packaging in a petition which is near its goal of 10,000 signatures, and Stokes’ creative protest. But the problem in Hong Kong runs deeper and a solution will require more than just supermarkets to make changes.
Consumer behaviour: Hygiene, quality, convenience
Dr. Lisa Wan, who studies consumer decision-making at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told HKFP that most people simply don’t think about environmental issues when they are grocery shopping.
“When they’re thinking about buying food in supermarkets, they are just focusing on the taste, the quality, whether the food is good or not. They are less likely to think about the over-packaging as a key factor in not purchasing the food.”
“Consumers also think that more packaging can protect the food from contamination,” she said. “More packaging gives them a more hygienic feeling – consumers in general feel disgust when they perceive that the product has been touched by other consumers.”
One shopper at the Smithfield wet market in Kennedy Town, Mrs. Lee, told HKFP that she prefers to buy packaged produce or will put loose vegetables in a produce bag when shopping at supermarkets.
“There’s no other way,” she said when asked about the problem of overflowing landfills. “I feel that I have to pay attention to my personal health first.”
She added that she would rather buy packaged produce, even if it is more expensive.
Packaged produce can give consumers the perception that the product is higher quality, Dr. Wan said, and supermarkets can take advantage of this perception to charge consumers more.
Consumer behaviour and packaging form a vicious cycle, she said. When supermarkets charge more for packaged products, they reinforce the idea that packaged goods are of higher quality.
Wan said the strawberry is an example of consumers’ perception of quality, pointing out that people are willing to pay more for gifts, and that fruit is often bought as a gift in Asian culture. In Asian cultures, people are also concerned with “face” – a concept of social prestige – and the more nicely a gift is packaged, the more “face” the recipient receives.
“You need some good packaging to give face to your friends and family,” Wan said.
Responding to the controversy over its HK$168 strawberry, supermarket chain CitySuper told HKFP that the premium grade rare delicacy was imported in its original packaging from Japan as a Valentine’s Day gift.
Aside from protection during transportation, packaging has other purposes in supermarkets. Unlike a traditional wet market, where vendors provide a one-to-one service, consumers have to pick up the fruit themselves, therefore supermarkets have to use more packaging so consumers can serve themselves, Dr. Wan says; this approach allows them to save on labour costs.
Mr. Yuen, who usually shops at a wet market, said he does not go out of his way to limit plastic packaging while shopping.
“Personally, I am very un-environmentally friendly,” he said.
“Right now, from what I can see, the [environmental] awareness of Hong Kong people is like mine, simply put – including myself – they’re very selfish.”
Clearly, there is a disconnect between plastic in our supermarkets and plastic on our beaches, says Stokes.
“I think [consumers] don’t know where it goes after they put it in the bin. They just assume it goes somewhere … it’s out of sight, out of mind – it’s that attitude. If it’s gone, it’s gone – it’s not my problem anymore.”
Although environmental issues are not as important to some consumers, many are aware of them, and supermarkets should provide more options for consumers who do not want to buy fruit and vegetables wrapped in plastic, Dr. Wan said.
Andy Chan and Mavis Ho, a young couple shopping for groceries at City Super, said they felt wrapping fruits and vegetables in plastic was unnecessary, but they continue to shop at City Super because it was more convenient. “There’s no way that you would go out of your way to shop at the wet market when you’re already out shopping here,” Ho said.
It was up to companies to reduce packaging, and there was “not much” they could do as consumers, Chan and Ho said.
“Because once you get into a pattern of shopping, you’re going to keep those habits. If you’re used to shopping at the supermarket you’re going to keep shopping at the supermarket – if you’re used to shopping at the wet market you’re going to keep shopping at the wet market.”
But they said that they would choose loose products over packaged produce if given the choice by supermarkets.
“You can also pick your own produce this way,” Ho said. “You don’t need to wrap it because you’re going to wash it anyway.”
“Vegetables that are labelled organic, when they are put in packaging, yes, it’s good for you, but it becomes not good for the environment,” said Chan.
Wellcome and PARKnSHOP declined HKFP’s requests for interviews, but sent separate email replies saying that the plastic packaging used for food is mostly directly applied by their suppliers.
PARKnSHOP said it has been urging suppliers to avoid unnecessary plastic packaging and explore environmentally friendly packaging materials, while Wellcome said it is currently working with suppliers to reduce its use of packaging.
“We have also set up an internal task force to review the packaging of our fruit and vegetable products, and discuss ways to reduce packaging from different aspects,” PARKnSHOP said.
“In our own operations and in conversations with our suppliers, we are working to source alternative, environmentally-safe packaging materials,” Wellcome said.
CitySuper said that it has been gradually reducing the amount of prepacked fruits and vegetables by introducing more loose sales while remaining aware of consumers’ concern about hygiene and quality. “Biodegradable clear plastic bags and shopping bags, as well as food trays and containers made of sugar cane fiber and PLA cornstarch, are increasingly used to reduce the use of plastics in our stores.”
But a visit to their Harbour City branch found very few unpackaged fruits and vegetables, with most apples and pears placed on plastic trays and shrink-wrapped, and bananas and onions wrapped in plastic bags. The supermarket did not directly address questions about why it packaged these products.
Ada Wong, a shopper at Wellcome, said that she only buys loose produce because packaged fruit and vegetables create too much trash. She said she hoped that supermarkets can provide more unpackaged options to consumers, but that the government will need to put pressure on them to do so.
“[The government] needs to talk to companies and encourage them to use less packaging,” she said.
Policy and public education
According to the Environmental Protection Department, since it implemented the plastic bag levy in 2009, the disposal of plastic shopping bags from supermarkets dropped by some 90 per cent. Clearly, using policy to reduce waste can be effective.
Dr. Jeffrey Hung of the Hong Kong-based NGO Friends of the Earth told HKFP that government policy such as Producer Responsibility Schemes (PRS) can be very effective in compelling producers to reduce packaging. Producer Responsibility Schemes are based on the “polluter pays” principle of environmental law, which means that the producer should pay for the environmental costs of their goods.
Apart from the plastic shopping bag levy, there are PRS for the management of electronic waste and glass bottles which were passed last year but have not yet been implemented (subsidiary legislation is being drafted), and the department told HKFP it would commission a feasibility study to consider how it could introduce a PRS for suitable plastic bottles. The government is also planning to introduce a legislative proposal for waste charging.
The EPD said that it is currently not considering a PRS for packaging. It takes into consideration factors such as landfill burden, practicability to regulate, facilities for treatment and markets for recycling locally and overseas when deciding which products are a priority.
“Packaging is a general source of waste which may include various waste types such as plastic, paper, metal, glass or even wood. Having regard to the above factors, we do not consider it a suitable candidate for introducing the next PRS,” the department said.
Dr. Hung said it is difficult to use policy to restrict packaging on particular types of food, but based on experience from other countries, it can be very effective to limit specific types of materials. “The retailers and the manufacturers who generate that kind of packaging have to cover their own costs, so if you’re a retailer and you want to earn more, then you can encourage [suppliers] to use environmentally friendly packaging or even [go] without packaging.”
Hung said the government is currently lagging behind schedule in implementing PRS and urged it to speed up and to cover more goods and services.
But it is not enough to depend on policy – the government must also improve public education to take away the demand for plastic-wrapped produce, he said.
“I can say [consumer] awareness is improving, but it’s not enough, because if you look at the dataset from the EPD, the municipal solid waste we generated is far more than neighbouring countries,” he said.
People think that it is not related to them because it doesn’t have a direct impact on their lives, he said.
“We need education – it’s the most effective way to let the public know the importance of plastic waste issues, and then they can influence their family and friends and spread the message as well.”
Activist Gary Stokes said the beach is a good place to start educating the public.
“When people start going to the beach on these beach cleanups, they suddenly see toothbrushes and things and they’re going ‘how did that get here?’… And that’s the bit we need to link.”