Hong Kong single-use plastic ban stirs debate over affordability of alternatives

The city’s disposable tableware ban which comes into force today has spooked small retailers over the price of “sustainable” items. Limited composting facilities is another concern. But NGOs hail the territory for the scope and breadth of measures to cut plastic pollution.

A single-use plastic soup spoon in use in HK
Hong Kong has the highest waste per capita footprint in Asia. The city of 7.5 million people landfills 4 million tonnes of municipal solid waste every year. Food waste accounts for about one-third of the total, plastics more than one-fifth. Image:  / Flickr

A ban on single-use plastic tableware introduced in Hong Kong today will test the resourcefulness of the city’s smaller eateries, which have been struggling to source affordable alternatives to throwaway plastic cutlery, straws, stirrers and plates.

The ban, the first phase of which came into force on Monday – Earth Day – was introduced under the Product Eco-Responsibility Bill passed in 2019 to tackle the financial centre’s chronic waste problem, and launches four months ahead of a much-delayed plan to charge Hong Kong residents for the waste they generate.

Hong Kong has the highest waste per capita footprint in Asia. The city of 7.5 million people landfills 4 million tonnes of municipal solid waste every year. Food waste accounts for about one-third of the total, and plastics more than one-fifth.

Phase two of Hong Kong’s single-use plastic ban, slated to come into force next year, will ban single-use plastic cups and boxes from takeaway services.

A restaurant charging its guests HKD1 for a set of wooden cutlery

A restaurant in Hong Kong is charging its patrons HKD1 (12 US cents) for a set of “environmentally friendly” wooden cutlery. Image: Patsy Ng

But plastic alternatives are “far from affordable” for small-scale hospitality businesses with tight margins, said TC Li, head of thought leadership at Green Hospitality, a non-profit that works to reduce the environmental footprint of Hong Kong’s food and beverage industry.

The government, which is helping retailers source plastic alternatives on its Green Tableware Platform, has said the prices of non-plastic tableware options are “comparable”. But some plastic alternatives, for instance for styrofoam used in food packaging, cost up to three times more than the plastic variety.

Some items, such as tubes of toothpaste provided to hotel guests or leak-proof containers for takeaways, plastic alternatives are particularly hard to source, say business owners.

Establishments have a six-month grace period to comply with the regulations, after which fines of up to HK$100,000 (US$12,800) will be dished out for non-compliance.

Other than cost concerns, which have been exacerbated by falling sales as Hongkongers head for the mainland for cheaper dining options, many hospitality businesses have lacked the bandwidth to stay on top of day-to-day operations while training their staff on the details of the ban, Li told Eco-Business.

Hong Kong has more than 17,000 restaurants, most of them small- to medium-sized eateries. The capacity of different hospitality businesses to comply with the ban varies widely.

Convenience retailer 7-Eleven said it has already replaced disposable plastic tableware, including straws and cutlery, with “eco-friendly” materials such as wood, bamboo, sugarcane and paper across all its stores.

The retailer, which operates more than 1,000 stores in Hong Kong, is still in the process of revamping the tableware at its hot food counters, including replacing plastic food containers and lids with “more sustainable options”, it told Eco-Business.

Large hotel brands have found it easier to adapt to the regulation, because some – like Conrad, Mandarin Oriental, Grand Hyatt and Shangri-La – started to eliminate single-use plastic from their operations as early as 2019 in response to rising expectations for a greener experience among their guests.

But Melanie Kwok, sustainability head for Sino Group, which owns hotels brands including Conrad, Royal Pacific Hotel, and The Pottinger, said a “gap” in the regulations is that there are no government incentives for hotels to procure plastic alternatives.

Another “grey area” is that hotels can still give out single-use plastic items, but now must charge for them – and there are no government standards on how to price items, she noted.

The regulation has forced hotels to rethink what should be considered an essential amenity item. Kwok said it was “debatable” whether items such as plastic-based cotton buds, toothbrushes, razors and shower caps count as necessities, and there are few suppliers in Hong Kong that provide alternatives.

Doug Woodring, a former banker who now runs Hong Kong-based non-profit Ocean Recovery Alliance, said that the ban will drive demand for plastic alternatives and costs will fall as wooden, bamboo and sugarcane products achieve economies of scale.

Curbs on the plastic footprint of takeaway services will spur innovation in reusable cutlery, bring-your-own models and new bio materials, he added.

However, Li of Green Hospitality said there is a desire among hospitality firms for more government support for product innovation to bring the price of plastic alternatives down further.

Hong Kong, a regional leader in plastic reduction?

Difficulty in accessing composting and recycling facilities has been flagged as another issue for managing the expected surge in waste plastic alternatives.

The city currently has two large-scale industrial composting facilities, although both only accept food waste.

Food and beverage businesses and delivery services will also need to prepare for the second phase of the regulations by readying reusable containers for takeaways and supporting infrastructure such as centralised collection systems and a cleaning kitchen – which is currently lacking, noted Li.

She added that different types of bioplastics would require different recycling streams so that they don’t become “a new source of environmental pollution”.

Despite the challenges faced in implementing the regulation, Hong Kong is a regional frontrunner in tackling plastic pollution because of the scope and breadth of the ban, said Woodring. Unlike in other territories, Hong Kong’s single-use ban does not just apply to bags and straws but all kinds of disposables that are usually seen as too small and difficult to recycle.

The regulation, which has been broadly welcomed by environmental groups, comes into play two years after Hong Kong doubled a levy on plastic bags, to HK$1 (13 US cents), and a few months ahead of a new charge on plastic disposal – Hongkongers will have to pay for pre-paid trash bags to dispose of rubbish as of 1 August. 

The city has also been trialling Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) or “polluter pays” initiatives, with one of a series of pilots for reverse vending machines launched last year.

Other cities in Asia to have introduced curbs on plastic use include Taiwan, which restricted the use of plastic bags, disposable food containers, and utensils in 2020 by charging stores that give them out for free. It will impose further measures next year in the run-up to a flat-out ban by 2030.

Mainland China, the world’s biggest plastic producer, plans to outlaw single-use plastics by 2025, while Vietnam and the Philippines have both introduced EPR laws to curb plastic use and pollution.

Woodring said Hong Kong is a “perfect case study” in how voluntary schemes to reduce plastic do not work in free economies, as there will always be “free-riders” and those who ignore the rules.

“By mandating this policy, the field is even for everyone, and all “boats can rise with the tide”, including the environment itself as a benefactor,” he said.


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