5.28 million plastic bottles are thrown away per day in Hong Kong. Plastic waste is polluting beaches dramatically, directly damaging the environment and biodiversity. There are only few people left that still deny global warming and the harmful impact of human activity on the planet.
We know it. Plastic is everywhere – in our food, in our cars, in our houses, in our entertainment. It has been a seemingly inevitable aspect of our consumerist lifestyle for more than seventy years. Sadly, the consequences of the plastic we generate are catastrophic. Plastic was created after WWII as a cheap, convenient, easy to use material. The cost of that was of course, non-biodegradability. We created a material that would not disappear by itself, and the direct consequence is what environmental associations are the most worried about: plastic invading oceans, killing birds and marine mammals, eventually polluting our beaches, before making its way into our own food again. Some even talk about a seventh continent, invisible to the maps we all learn in primary school, only composed of plastic waste.
Environmental associations are raising their voice to denounce this issue, as they have always done. Plastic is the largest source of ocean litter and takes up to 1000 years to degrade in a landfill. The plastic bottle you are throwing away today won’t disappear until at least 3017. Around thirty more generations of humans will have lived on Earth by that time, producing, consuming, accumulating waste and spoiling the planet. And your bottle will still there.
All this however, is far from anything new. The digits change from year to year – usually on the increase – but our response is at best stagnant. At least on a large scale. In between political headlines of recent years, “buzzworthyness” and clickbait the state of plastic is just old news.
Some could quote the scientist Stephen Hawking, according to whom humanity has around 1000 years left on Earth. What’s the point saving the planet if the human race is condemned to eventual destruction? Many others however argue that it is precisely the pressing of time that reminds us of the responsibility to keep the Earth liveable while we can.
Ditch Disposable Campaign, an HKU initiative
The University of Hong Kong is leading the way. Or at least, one of the many ways. The Sustainability office has launched the Ditch Disposable Campaign on the 22nd of March, at the World Water Day. The campaign aims to ban the use and the distribution of all disposable plastic items on campus. It is starting with plastic bottles, which won’t be purchasable in any vending machines on HKU grounds from the 1st of July 2017. It will also include the use of plastic glasses at any faculty and student events. For Meagan Cowan from the Sustainability Office, this campaign is especially necessary in a structure like HKU, which counts more than thirty thousand students: “As a major university, we thought that we could make a large impact in the city’s waste by focusing on plastic bottles specifically”. The campaign also included beach clean-up initiatives and movie screenings about the damage of plastic on the environment, and marine biodiversity.
Disposable plastic bottles are only the first step of action, as the campaign will continue on for several months. Though this is a university policy, Mrs Cowan highlights the importance of individual commitment to make this effort a success: “The campaign really focuses on getting people to reduce on their own terms”. Indeed the whole campaign encourages students to “be part of it”, by bringing their own reusable bottles and mugs and take away drinks, for example. Last year, only 1 out of 400 students were doing so according to the “Bring Your Own Mug” campaign organized by the Conservancy Association. A couple of restaurants on HKU Campus, such as Starbucks, are already offering a discount for those who take their own cup to drink their coffee, or like Bijas, charge extra when you order take-away.
As part of the campaign launch, twenty seven early champions, from department to student groups, have already agreed to reduce, and eventually cease their consumption of plastics and ban their distribution. Five students groups are part of these champions, including the HKU Student Union, who have committed to stop using disposable items at their events and their orientation camps.
So far, the action seems to hit some cords in the student’s hearts, and Mrs Cowan reckons that they have been “really pleased with the level of support and interest on behalf of everyone at the university.” The biggest part of the work still needs to be done, and the upcoming months will show if the campaign turns out successful.
Hong Kong at large
While HKU increases its involvement in plastic reduction, the problem is also being handled by several governmental and non-governmental associations. Among them is Plastic free seas whose work focuses on education of the Hong Kong audience towards its plastic consumption. There is a general consensus among NGOs and environmentally aware people in Hong Kong: a decade ago, campaigns like Al Gore’s ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ succeeded in introducing the problem with shock value and making a good part of society conscious about the drawbacks of the consumerist culture.
One of the ways in which people around the world have chosen to alter their lifestyles is the Zero Waste Movement. According to Zero Waste, one can minimise their rubbish to a bare minimum, starting with the elimination of all plastic. As Tracey from Plastic Free Seas explains, “there are people setting great examples with ZW lifestyles in HK,” however it does “take a lot of dedication, planning and commitment…[and] a bit of outside space (for composting)”. The main task for organizations like Plastic Free Seas however, is to find a level of impact that can reach to as many citizens as possible, and not just to a select, dedicated few.
With the overflow of information, documentaries, art, articles, and a general reinvention of the culture of social justice, it is certainly harder to keep us attracted to the idea of ‘environmental awareness’, and therefore educated about the evolving consequences of plastic consumption. In a city like Hong Kong, time and convenience are key necessities for anyone who wants to keep up with its rhythm.
For Plastic Free Seas, the main task is “definitely education and dispelling myths…We teach people that the only way we are going to feasibly clean the oceans of plastic is to all start using less plastic…We also teach people that recycling is not some easy process that deals with all of our plastics. Just because it goes in the recycling bin, doesn’t mean all the plastic will end up recycled/downcycled into something else. Recycling needs economics of scale and that is difficult to achieve, especially in Hong Kong.”
Laurene Cen is an architecture student who will be seen with her reusable bottle or picking her own tomatoes from HKU’s rooftop farm. After observing how people throw away their disposables around campus, she realised that “over half of the materials that people throw in the recycling bins are simply wrong. They dump Starbucks cups into paper…like I did in the beginning”. Chances are you didn’t know that Starbucks cups are lined with plastic either. Laurene explains that the difficulty in Hong Kong stands in giving people a motive to think about their plastic consumption: “It’s the prices that drive the motives here”.
Prices motivate both people’s consumption of plastic, and their supply of it. “Recycling is a complicated process and relies heavily on the market demands of the day – if there is a demand for a particular type of plastic then that plastic will be collected and baled. Because the oil prices are currently low there is less of a demand for recycled plastic, it is cheaper to make new products with virgin plastic,” explains Tracey.
Then the questions arise, if it all depends on the price is there anything that people like Laurene and Tracey can really do to change the lifestyle of people in Hong Kong? Can the reduction of plastic become sexy enough?
Tracey doubts that it can ever be “sexy”. But there are certainly other ways to make plastic awareness more appealing. Laurene is currently looking into the design of recycling bins and what subtle changes could lead to people thinking twice before throwing away a plastic bottle. She looks at details like the height and distance of the bins, their transparence or the way that instructions are placed on them. “If people could see all the plastic that they throw inside the bin, it could give them a clearer signal of what they’re doing”.
On the other hand, the key seems to stand in changing the approach towards how the consequences of plastic waste are presented to the general population, both of Hong Kong and the world. Vox recently produced a video explaining why we just don’t seem to fancy thinking about the environment and why the media is not succeeding in scaring us enough to take action. The message of the video is in fact that “doom and gloom messaging” will never be effective, as our human psychology causes us to respond to threat by running away rather than confronting. The focus of Vox’s video is energy use, however the takeaway is similar to the approach of that the Ditch Disposable Campaign and Laurene are suggesting.
“Environmentally aware people always seem to have some kind of anger towards those who don’t care. We should probably change our tone from accusation, to positivity,” she believes, a principle that is also supported by the ideology of Plastic Free Seas.
In other words, finger-pointing or simply the act of showing data about the increase of Hong Kong pollution due to plastic waste, the key stands in speaking directly to our psychology. The problem needs to firstly become personal and concrete, and secondly, the idea of ‘taking action’ needs to arise out of a sense of collective and collaboration rather than collective threat. The Ditch Disposable Campaign at HKU forces one to do exactly just that, shift their daily habits just enough to make them think about plastic at least once a day. Once the idea of carrying around reusable bottles and food containers becomes common practice enough, then we might automatically start looking at our plastic consumption concretely. We would be able to gauge the plastic that we are not using instead.
To encourage this, Tracey suggests a personal challenge for the people of Hong Kong: “Do a waste audit of their own lives – the 2 week challenge is a good start. Collecting all your (non perishable) waste for 2 weeks, documenting it and looking for ways to reduce it with alternative products, reusable items or behaviour change. And then start teaching and encouraging others too! HKU students have lead some great initiatives in the last year.”
The act of bringing the challenge to a personal level, where the goal is merely to reach a certain number of plastic bottles saved per week, rather than thinking about global pollution as an abstract phenomenon, can automatically make it easier for people to become proactive.
In other words, being reminded of the state of Hong Kong landfills is useful for anyone who is willing to bring their demands to the attention of government authorities. But for the average Hong Konger rushing through the city’s daily hustle, feeling invited into a common challenge of small and measurable goals can ultimately have a far greater results. Perhaps all we need to do next time, is to ask our bartender to hand us our drink without the plastic straw in it.
Special thanks to:
Tracey Read – Plastic Free Seas, Founder & CEO
For more information: http://plasticfreeseas.org/
Meagan Cowan – Sustainability Office HKU,
For more information: http://www.sustainability.hku.hk/
Laurene Cen – Year I, Faculty of Architecture
For more information: https://issuu.com/laurenecen/docs/portfolio_4.8
Writers: Lucie Jung & Sara Furxhi