If we put a value on plastic for recycling or another use, will that discourage ending the use of plastic altogether? Would it just give big manufacturers a way to avoid having to innovate?
That was a key debate at our insightful Ocean & Plastics roundtable last month. Paul Niel and Esther Roling shared their experience running HK Adventure Cleanup, collecting 2,400kg of waste from Hong Kong's coastline. They planned to separate out the plastic, but found out there was no way of recycling it.
Some of the entrepreneurs present advocated against the creation of a value chain for waste plastic. Their innovations all offered ways to avoid plastic altogether, for instance through reusable take away cutlery and bio polyester. They felt that support for plastics waste-to-energy technology or similar would mean that manufacturers would make no improvements and keep churning out single-use plastics.
Others around the table shared success stories of PRS - producer responsibility schemes - with examples from Taiwan and other Asian markets. With Hong Kong’s inherently entrepreneurial nature, many were convinced that if waste plastic was given a price, businesses to capture that value would be readily established.
While we didn't reach a conclusion on this debate, there was agreement that government needs to play a role with regulation to drive systemic change. The group agreed that cleaning up the current plastic waste in the oceans and shifting big business away from single-use plastic were both in need of government leadership. To pressure the government in Hong Kong to act, more awareness raising is required. One NGO shared their experience working with children in local schools, where many students simply had no knowledge of the problem. However, there are many causes fighting for students’ attention, and many of the environmental or social NGOs operate in isolation.
More collaboration is required to move beyond awareness into action. We were all impressed by the approach that the Drink Without Waste cross-stakeholder group has taken. With Hong Kong's government preferring to let industry lead, Swire Coca-Cola and other corporates joined forces with NGOs like Plastic Free Seas to collaborate on the issue.
Drink Without Waste has developed a "producer pays" scheme that would finance collection and recycling services. They went so far as to fully draft the legislation. Members of the group shared that they are hopeful that the government will follow through and enact the scheme in the coming parliament. It may not solve the whole problem, but it is certainly a step in the right direction.