A new waste management scheme that the Hong Kong government is designing could reduce the amount of unrecycled plastics and their adverse impacts on the environment but higher rebates are needed to motivate residents to take part in the initiative for the long term, according to a survey.
Home to almost 7.5 million residents, Hong Kong lags when it comes to cutting waste, with the average person discarding 1.4 kilogrammes of waste each day – more than double that of Asian cities such as Tokyo, Seoul and Taipei. An estimated 5 million plastic bottles make it into Hong Kong landfills each day, according to The Green Earth, a Hong Kong-based environmental organisation that promotes resource conservation.
Government statistics show that waste plastics account for roughly 20 per cent of the city’s total municipal solid waste disposal, and less than 6 per cent is recycled.
To reduce the amount of plastic entering the environment and for plastic waste to be converted into reusable resources, the Hong Kong government is drafting a new Producer Responsibility Scheme (PRS) for the collection and recycling of plastic beverage containers and beverage cartons.
The latest findings from a survey conducted by Eco-Business and international non-profit Reloop Platform indicate support for the upcoming initiative, with 86.4 per cent of survey respondents backing it, and more than 66 per cent of them noting that they already recycle their beverage containers most or all the time.
The study, which surveyed mainly young professionals between the ages of 25 to 34 who are based in Hong Kong, from October to December 2023, however also found that only 9 per cent of respondents believed that a current rebate of HK$0.10 (US$0.013) provides enough incentive for people to recycle plastic bottles via a reverse vending machine.
More than half of the respondents (57.6 per cent) support increasing the refund value to between HK$0.50 to HK$1 (about US$0.065 to US$0.13) – which is at least five to 10 times the current rate.
The low rebate pales in comparison to other values found in Europe, for instance, with the most successful European schemes legislating a deposit and refund of €0.25 (around US$0.27 or HK$2.15), according to Global Deposit Book 2022, a global analysis conducted by non-profit organisation Reloop Platform, on over 50 deposit systems that are currently in place.
Reloop Platform works with governments, industry, and society to accelerate the transition to a circular economy.
The study found that the success rate of beverage container deposit schemes largely depends on a deposit paid by consumers and that the deposit paid by and refunded to consumers is meaningful enough for them to participate in the scheme.
Many jurisdictions require individuals to pay on top of their purchase of single-use plastic, glass, or canned beverages. This deposit is then refunded to consumers when they return their containers to a designated collection point.
There are around 60 reverse vending machines across Hong Kong now, set up by the city’s Environmental Protection Department (EPD). Hong Kong residents can receive the HK$0.10 rebate per bottle electronically or donate the proceeds to a charity of their choice. The bottles are then brought to suitable recyclers for proper treatment and recycling locally.
If the Hong Kong government gets it right and establishes a meaningful rebate value for consumers, it will also serve as an inspiration to other Asian countries.
Robert Kelman, director, Reloop Platform
More reason to recycle
There are hopes that the new scheme will boost Hong Kong’s recycling rates, which are around 31 per cent, according to 2021 figures from EPD. Despite the recycling rate being an increase from 28 per cent seen in 2020, the number is still lower compared to the rates seen in other Asian cities such as Singapore (55 per cent) and Taipei (65 per cent).
Edwin Lau, founder and executive director of The Green Earth, notes that despite increasing awareness among Hong Kong residents about the impact of waste on the environment, more “convenient” recycling points available around the city are needed to encourage individuals.
“The lack of accessible public recycling facilities and the need to find recycling points or community recycling stations are discouraging recycling efforts as they aren’t too near residential areas,” he said, adding that the city’s hot summer months are an additional deterrent for residents to carry recyclables to the nearest recycling point.
Hong Kong’s reverse vending machines were piloted by EPD in two stages in 2021 and 2022, and have been extended following positive public response. A separate survey conducted by The Green Earth in 2021, however, also found that the HK$0.10 rebate is not enough of an incentive for residents to recycle their plastic bottles, with only 40 per cent noting so. 70 per cent of those surveyed indicated they would recycle their plastic bottles if the rebate were raised to HK$1 per bottle.
For the scheme to make a tangible impact on the environment, the city’s government should genuinely consider increasing the rebate for plastic containers and cartons, noted Robert Kelman, director at Reloop Platform. “Not only does the [current proposed rebate value] mean low levels of environmental outcomes in terms of waste reduction and recycling rates, it could also pose real commercial risks for collection point operators,” he said.
If the “flow-through” of containers is not sufficient, and operators do not generate enough revenue, they might close down, potentially imposing a liability on taxpayers, he explained.
Clamping down on waste
The PRS on Plastic Beverage Containers and Beverage Cartons is one of two key initiatives expected to be launched to reduce the amount of waste generated in Hong Kong. The city’s government also plans to roll out a municipal solid waste charging policy on 1 April 2024, which will charge residents based on the quantity of waste they dispose of.
The scheme will charge HK$0.11 (US$0.019) for each litre of rubbish thrown away starting in April, with residents required to store their refuse in designated bags. A three-litre bag will cost HK$0.30 (US$0.051) and a 100-litre bag will cost HK$11 (US$1.41).
This new policy aims to encourage residents to change their habits and reduce waste generation at the source, and for people to practise proper waste separation and recycling, Lau said.
A step in the right direction
There are hopes that both schemes will help the government meet its bottle return target rate of 40 per cent in the first year of implementation, and 75 per cent by the fifth year.
Eco-Business’ survey suggests that the government may need to set more aggressive targets for the upcoming PRS to succeed – around 47 per cent of respondents noted that the city should achieve a recycling rate of 75 per cent in just three years.
The survey respondents indicated that a combination of increased convenience, stringent regulations and more capacity building is needed to ensure the scheme leads to a successful outcome.
One individual surveyed noted that there needs to be more recycling points at locations such as in offices, restaurants and shopping centres, while another respondent said the scheme should be “expanded to other plastic products”. One suggested that residents should be properly informed that the scheme is a refund instead of a tax.
Industry watchers point to how beverage container return schemes in other cities have a much higher refund rate. For example, Lau highlighted that Singapore’s scheme, which will launch in 2025, will provide rebates of S$0.10 ( US$0.075 per plastic bottle or metal can returned – nearly six times the amount offered in Hong Kong’s PRS. The city-state deployed reverse vending machines in 2019 and has collected upwards of 16 million beverage containers as of September 2023.
“This system has proven effective in motivating both low-income and high-income individuals to participate in recycling efforts,” Lau added.
Kelman agreed, noting the need for higher rebates to win over residents in the long term. “If the Hong Kong government gets it right and establishes a meaningful rebate value for consumers, it will also serve as an inspiration to other Asian countries,” he said.
“It will mean beverage manufacturers and retailers can play their role in a global sustainable packaging agenda and consumers will know their used containers can be processed back into new containers.”