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Solving the plastic packaging problem: it’s time for industries and governments to play their part

By Wendell Chan, Project Officer, Friends of the Earth (HK)

It is almost April 22nd, which means Earth Day is just around the corner. Since 1970, the annual event has raised awareness of a wide range of environmental issues. The theme for this year is to end plastic pollution, though it seems Hong Kong did not get the message.

During Chinese New Year, festival goers decorated the streets with litter and turned overfilled waste bins into hills of rubbish. Among these heaps were many disposable plastic bags, bottles, and containers. Plastic waste is not a symptom unique to festivals either. Hong Kong buries over 2,100 tonnes of it in landfills daily – much of it packaging materials.

Valued for its low cost, light weight, and the various properties that it can be imbued with, plastic is regarded as one of the most important inventions of the past century. Plastic packaging has transformed how food is delivered and distributed.

Yet, 95 per cent of value in plastic packaging is estimated to be lost after the first use, amounting to as much as US$120 billion (HK$940 billion) of losses every year.

plastic packaging produce

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

Many disposable plastics, like films and straws, are already not disposed of properly. This has been exacerbated by China’s ban on imported recyclable materials, and in Hong Kong by the new government recycling policy of accepting only code number 1 and 2 plastics.

Even when they are recycled, these are notorious for recyclers as they get contaminated easily and some can jam sorting machines. Less than 15 per cent of the plastic waste we produce in Hong Kong is recycled – a bit better than the global average of 9 per cent.

Some reckon doing without plastic is impossible and we should look to making plastics greener instead. Solutions include making bioplastics from corn, algae, or even food waste. Compared with their fossilised plant-based counterparts, these polymers utilise renewable resources.

Some bioplastics are also biodegradable, making them useful for food packaging as they can be composted and avoid food contamination issues during recycling.

But they have their problems. Like plastics, bioplastics are not a single item but a range of polymers. While bioplastics look and work like conventional plastics, they cannot be recycled together.

Plant-based PLA plastics have a similar density to PET plastics, making them difficult to separate once mixed. To the public however, differentiating between #1 and #2 plastics is hard enough – let alone having to separate bioplastics and conventional plastics.

Also, bioplastics are often confused with biodegradables. Not all bioplastics can biodegrade, and not all biodegradable plastics are bioplastics. Even for biodegradable bioplastics, most only break down in industrial composters. Bioplastics in the sea can be as devastating as conventional plastics.

Bioplastics are not the cure-all to our appetite for plastic. Instead of just changing what we make plastics from, we can also change how we design them. We are good at engineering advanced plastic products, but rarely consider how they are handled at end-of-life.

Take the black food trays used by supermarkets and restaurants for example. Black gives food items a stronger contrast. Unfortunately, it also makes the plastic trays hard to detect in traditional optical sorting machines, as the commonly-used carbon black pigments absorb infra-red light.

Small pieces of plastic, such as straws, tear-offs, and wrappers, often get lost during collection and sorting. Most are too small to be filtered by machines and too costly to be sorted manually.

Multilayer flexible packaging is an even bigger headache. Though touted as more sustainable because fewer resources are used to make it, it is mostly not recycled because each layer is different and has to be separated.

Innovations can make it easier to recycle and reduce waste. Detectable chemical markers to identify the various plastic grades can make automated sorting easier. Packaging materials designed using a single polymer or compatible polymers can be recycled by existing machinery.

Perhaps beyond all of this, we should reconsider our relationship with plastic, or more specifically, how we use it. The contribution of plastic packaging to the food industry is undeniable. It has drastically reduced the energy costs of production and transport, and extended the shelf life of perishable items.

As with most things however, technology often outpaces society’s ability to adapt. We have shorelines covered with plastic waste, no matter how many times they get cleaned up. What is not beached is trapped by ocean currents or in the stomachs of animals. It is estimated that the ocean will contain more plastic than fish by 2050.

plastic debris beach

Plastic debris on beach. Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters.

Plastic waste – and waste in general – is generally left for municipalities to handle. Unfortunately, this has encouraged cities to burn it. Cities have no interest in recovering resources when the goal of waste management is to keep a clean environment as cheaply as possible.

The burden of managing plastic’s afterlife should be placed on producers, who benefit the most from the production and consumption of plastic packaging. Japan and Taiwan, for instance, ensure producers either pay to use the local recycling infrastructure or establish their own collection routes.

This encourages producers to cut down on recycling costs by including greener elements into packaging designs; and recyclers are properly funded to handle low-value scrap plastics.

Governments also have responsibilities. We cannot rely solely on good will from businesses. Legislation should help drive the recovery and reuse of plastic waste and other secondary materials.

The government must rethink the objectives of its regulatory framework, to enable a sustainable market and innovations in the industry.

It is tempting to end with a list of what individuals can do, but just telling people to recycle more and use less plastic is not enough. Big problems sometimes require big solutions. People around the globe are demanding more responsible use of plastic. It is time for industries and governments to take action.

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Solving the plastic packaging problem: it's time for industries and governments to play their part