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May 30, 2018

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Plastic-Free Pains

May 30, 2018

 

Our battle on environmental sustainability is really hitting an interesting phase now. Awareness is fairly universal - no one (even Trump?) can really deny the problem with a straight face especially after the National Geographic's heartbreaking "plastic" issue this month - and discussion has already moved on to action, from policy to personal bottles.

 

Just this week, the EU has proposed to ban single-use plastics. This is obviously a huge development, but my key takeaway is in the announcement - that underpinning this ban is the EU's intention to boost R&D into alternatives (and become a leader in that space). This, really, is the biggest win - an explicit, opportunistic policy announcement that recognises that plastic use simply cannot be reduced unless viable, dependable and scaleable alternatives exist. Yet another equally important, but not emphasised, issue is to do with infrastructure overhaul.

 

Going plastic-free is a challenging commitment.

 

As someone who has been trying actively to eliminate single-use plastics for 3 years now, I have come to realise that it's really borderline impossible in HK. And I have tried. I have water bottles - maybe 11 of them. Some I've ended up breaking, or losing, or there is a hygiene problem (stinky plastic, or mouldy silicone caps that don't improve on cleaning). I tried to bring a coffee mug around - in addition to my bottle - which meant large handbags and coffee-stained documents. I bring my own grocery bags (when I remember). I have steel straws, but I have limited ways of cleaning the straw in between drinks on summer days like these. I have silicone cling film replacements - but they started to get tacky after a few months and attracted ants??? So my commitment to the cause is constantly challenged and I end up spending way too much of my time researching what to do next. And these reusable products are only effective alternatives if they are used enough, so I am constantly experiencing different levels of guilt (being forgetful, the carbon footprint for imported products, feeling wasteful for not wanting to drink water from a stinky mug). 

 

The point is, going plastic free is painful. It's going against everything that is convenient. You have to make significant changes to your habits and behaviour. And the major issue here is scale. How can we align our everyday usage - just that 1 slip a day - with the big picture? 

 

Progress depends on eliminating costs.

 

All of the complaints above are personal costs. Unless we find a way to eliminate costs, it is difficult to envisage systematic reduction of plastic usage, anywhere in the world. This is especially true in developing countries, where bottled water represents health & safety standards, and poor infrastructure can make it costly to establish any structural improvement in the near term. Even China - incredibly wealthy & efficient for a developing country - is merely addressing the problem through accelerating recycling, rather than replacing plastic bottles completely. 

 

Hong Kong should be a prime candidate to be a leader in this drive.

 

Cities present an excellent framework to develop scaled solutions to the problem. Established infrastructure makes logistics easier and cheaper - the Freiburg cup is a prime example. By incorporating the product into the daily lives of consumers with minimal hassle, this programme leverages on existing infrastructure and eliminates the pain and costs associated with plastic replacement.

 

How can we start that conversation in Hong Kong? We are a city that prides itself on efficient logistics and excellent infrastructure. We have multiple convenience stores along each road, within each district, across the urban area. Our food retail market is an oligopoly - this means that scaling up could be very efficiently done.

 

Excellent, community-driven pilots such as Urban Spring has already made an impressive attempt at improving the infrastructure. Next step, we would require the large corporates to listen and move - which would most likely require policy support. Recent discussions about plastic bottle deposit fees, as an example, are welcome but insufficient. To address the root cause, now is the time to be audacious. 

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