Environment & Health HKFP Voices

Plastic policies: Reducing microplastic pollution is an urgent environmental, biological and human health issue

By Sion Griffiths

In 1972, the journal Science published a paper, Plastics on the Sargasso Sea Surface, detailing the abundance of pellet-shaped plastics less than a centimetre in diameter, floating on the surface of the Western Sargasso Sea. It was the first paper on microplastics. The authors accurately predicted that increasing production of plastics, combined with then-present waste disposal practices, would lead to microplastics pollution outbreaks.

Almost 40 years on, tiny particles of plastic of less than 5mm are extremely widespread on Hong Kong shores. A study by The Hong Kong Institute of Education surveyed 25 beaches – they found around 140,000 pieces of microplastic; 50% higher than similar studies done in South Korea, and 7 times more than Easter Island, in the Pacific Ocean. Microplastics arise from fragmentation of macroplastics or are added directly to the environment in micro form, for example as “nurdles” (plastic pellets_ or microbeads, as found in facial scrubs. Readers may remember the Sinopec pellet spill in 2012 here in Hong Kong. They pose dangers to marine organisms at the base of food chains, such as zooplankton, causing mortality, false-satiation, and a host of other biological effects.

At the very top of the food chain are humans. Worryingly, the short- and long-term effects of microplastics on human health and safety are unknown, due to their relatively recent scientific observation. Regardless, ecological effects abound – microplastics are a surface for new algal communities, affecting ecosystem function by providing alternative artificial habitats, food sources, and compositions of species.  Thus, their presence is a pressing environmental, biological and human health issue. Having our beaches constantly littered with trash, tiny pieces of polystyrene and other plastic litter is also highly undesirable.

Plastic pellet spill

The plastic pellet spill in 2012 in Hong Kong. File Photo: Hong Kong Coast Watch.

By now, plastic is an essential part of our lives. The only way we can ensure that microplastics and other forms of plastic pollution do not pose a serious risk is implementing a circular economy. A circular economy is an alternative to the traditional “make, use, dispose” linear economy – it suggests that we use resources for as long as possible, extract maximum value, and then recover and recycle products and materials at the end of their lives; for example, plastic pellets made with recycled packaging material.

An example of progress towards such an economy is Taiwan; since 1988’s Waste Disposal Act, enterprises are obliged to take back and recycle their post-consumer products like packaging, tires, etc. In Hong Kong, we lag behind and lack any such measures. Indeed, Taiwan has had to ban free provision of items such as disposable cutlery and shopping bags of certain thinness. They also completely banned disposable cutlery in government buildings and schools by 2006. Furthermore, they implemented “Restriction of excessive packaging” rules to ensure no excessive materials are used – increased measures are planned, targeted towards more disposable products in future. Our government could adopt similar take-back measures, and aim to educate businesses on the negative effects of excessive packaging.

plastic packaging produce

A shopper walks by shelves at Wellcome. Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

Recycling plays an extremely crucial role in the circular economy as it turns the old products into new ones. A reshuffling of the relevant government departments must happen in order to make progress in recycling. Nigel Mattravers, the director of the company in charge of the government’s HK$548.6 million Tuen Mun electronic waste recycling facility, suggests that Hong Kong’s officials need to start viewing “waste” not as “waste” but as “valuable recyclable material that is price-competitive, environmentally preferable and energy efficient.” Thus, there should be involvement from the government to cultivate the recycling industry in Hong Kong and pave inroads for a truly circular economy to be put in place.

Furthermore, the mainland’s crackdown on importation of unregulated waste will cause much of our exported recyclables to be unaccepted in the mainland, the government should develop our local recycling industry to reduce reliance on exporting to China and foreign markets. Indeed, recycling is viewed as a green business elsewhere in the world – it contributes US$500 billion to global GDP and provides millions of jobs globally.

Wong Kam-sing

Secretary for the Environment Wong Kam-sing. Photo: GovHK.

Unfortunately, our government focuses on waste reduction in rhetoric, but end-of-pipe solutions like landfills in practice. Most of the waste reduction objectives and policies over the last 20 odd years have been progressing extremely slowly, or are abandoned, including the mandatory beverage container deposit scheme of 1990 (abandoned), waste charging scheme (still not in place as of 2017) among many, many others. Other comparably developed countries have made significant inroads into reducing their waste generation, such as Taiwan and South Korea, and are working towards “zero-waste” goals. Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, we are still trying to get our citizens to rinse out containers and put them into the right bins.

Further steps to take include waste reduction, as the less there is to reuse and recycle, the easier it is to implement the circular economy. These implementations should be in the form of municipal solid waste charging in tandem with mandatory waste separation at source programmes, as in Taiwan, subsidies on less-valuable recyclables, levies on other plastic goods, creation of small-scale recycling plants, building simple facilities to supplement existing Refuse Collection Points to recycle bottles or other common single-type plastics, and any other reduction methods the government can think of. These additions to Hong Kong’s recycling industry would lay groundwork for a true circular economy in the future, and greatly reduce the overall level of plastic litter, thereby tackling the microplastic pollution problem at its source.

We in Hong Kong are lagging behind others.

Plastic policies: Reducing microplastic pollution is an urgent environmental, biological and human health issue