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Drowning in plastic: Tackling Hong Kong’s pollution problems

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The past year saw Lantau beaches on the rebound, that is until disaster struck not once but twice in August. The question is where do we go from here? Elizabeth Kerr reports.

We all saw the headlines about Lantau’s ignominious summer of 2016: “Environmental Disaster,” said Coconuts Hong Kong. “Hong Kong’s Beaches Teeming With Plastic Trash, Can Even Be Seen From Space,” screamed EcoWatch. “Hong Kong takes aim at China for trash on beaches,” was all the news that was fit to print according to Hong Kong Free Press.

It was a humiliating couple of months to be sure, the kind that led to media notoriety that prompts action. And the following year did in fact see the situation improve… that is until the beginning of August, when local beaches were again ankle-deep in plastic and worse.

First up, a massive palm-oil spill, caused after two vessels collided in the Pearl River Estuary on August 3, led to the closure of beaches across Hong Kong. Pui O, Upper and Lower Cheung Sha and Tong Fuk shorelines were among the worst affected. Then disaster struck again on August 23 in the aftermath of Typhoon Hato – beaches (and even pavements) across the territory were blanketed by vast amounts of polystyrene litter swept in by the high tides, flooding and hurricane-force winds.

Again the beaches buried beneath tonnes of snow-like plastic confetti, the destruction of marine life… and the screaming headlines: “Hong Kong beaches close over foul palm oil disaster,” New York Post. “Clean up begins in Hong Kong after Typhoon Hato destruction,” The Telegraph.

Marine pollution policies fall short

Over the past 12 months, the government had at least seemed to be listening. In his final Policy Address as Chief Executive in January, CY Leung noted the improved water quality in the harbour, thanks to the Harbour Area Treatment Scheme Stage 2, and ongoing “collaboration with Guangdong in examining ways to reduce marine refuse and set up a notification system”.

On the waste management front, the government committed to waste charging, in accordance with the Hong Kong: Blueprint for Sustainable Use of Resources. CY proudly pointed out that regulations for electrical, electronic and glass producers are close to being finalised, and organic waste-to-energy facilities are almost ready, as are food-waste recycling and handling mechanisms. “We will also commission a feasibility study on how to implement a [producer responsibility scheme] targeting suitable plastic containers, mainly those carrying beverages or personal care products,” he said.

It’s certain that up until early August, the amount of marine pollution on our beaches had at least eased. Regular beach clean-up organiser and South Lantau resident Shoni Kristensen, who centres her efforts on Tai Long Wan Tsuen, theorises that the combination of better weather and policy played a part. “I have heard that the  mainland has been fining illegal dumping this year,” she says. “Last year [when mountains of rubbish washed up on Hong Kong’s beaches, with packaging indicating most of it had come from the  mainland], we saw an horrific increase in marine waste due to the unprecedented floods that affected China over the winter.”

The fact remains, however, that Guangdong authorities waited two days to inform local officials about the palm-oil spill, proving that CY’s much-paraded notification system, which began a trial run in May, still needs work. Less than a week after the boats collided, Hong Kong beaches were smothered by over 200 tonnes of toxic  oil waste. The foul-smelling, jelly-like clumps, coating dead fish, plastic bottles and other rubbish, continue to pose a real threat to marine life.

Likewise, the environmental fallout resulting from Typhoon Hato shows that Hong Kong’s own attitude to plastic recycling still has a long way to go, despite CY’s January pledge. In early August, following an inspection by urban planning concern group Designing Hong Kong, Fisheries representatives blamed inadequate recycling facilities at Aberdeen Fish Market for the volumes of polystyrene boxes that end up in our waters. According to the Environmental Protection Department foam plastic comprises about a fifth of shoreline and floating refuse, making it difficult to lay blame for the latest polystyrene litter disaster on Guangdong’s doorstep.

A home-grown issue

Contrary to popular – or comforting – belief, local experts are adamant that our beaches get trashy because of us. In July, Eco Marine HK co-founder and Tong Fuk resident Keilem Ng was in the middle of a 30-day personal clean-up (she first got involved in  cleaning beaches during the 2012 pellet plague) that became a fact- finding mission. “I go to the closest beach from my home and I’m out  and back in 45 minutes,” she says. “I wanted to see – to show – what I could do in 30 days.”

Keilem also wanted to track what it was she was picking up. The sheer volume of disposable lighters shocked her, as did the number of plastic bottles from right here in the SAR. “At the two-week mark almost half the bottles were from Hong Kong,” she says. “People point fingers but we need to look at our own behaviour. There’s a great perception that everything is China’s fault. Media like to emphasise that all the polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles are from China when it’s 51%. That drives me crazy.”

Rob Barker, a sustainability investment executive, South Lantau resident and rubbish-off-beaches-and-roads (ROBAR) evangelist, first got serious about picking up the litter he found, when walking near his home, around the time of the 2016 disaster. Out of curiosity he started a running tally and counted 800 plastic bottles in one year – by himself. Rob is quick to lay blame on our own doorstep: “The biggest source of beach waste is Hong Kong people, littering on Hong Kong roads, which flows into Hong Kong culverts, which flows into Hong Kong seas and back onto Hong Kong beaches.” That said, Rob isn’t denying Chinese garbage makes its way to Hong Kong: “Of course there’s going to be a lot of inter-country waste. But it’s always been too easy for Hong Kong to blame other people.”

Plastic consumption on the decline

Education is key to changing behaviour. “We need to work on it from all angles,” Keilem says. “Really, we need to stop producing, and making, so much of this plastic rubbish. And we need to bring people to [the problem]. In a place like Hong Kong where so many people live in these elevated, podium high-rise towers, they’re not very connected to nature, they don’t see. They understand the problem intellectually but they don’t link it to themselves.”

As grim as things seem, use of plastic could well be on the decline. “What is good is the growing awareness. More people are going  vegan or vegetarian; it’s trendy to be a hippie,” says Keilem with a laugh. “There is some greenwashing but it’s generally going in the right direction.”

“It’s an emerging corporate risk for people who produce plastic, it’s becoming known as something that shouldn’t be used,” adds Rob. “We’re not going to end the use of plastic, but we have to be smarter about how we produce it and not use so much, and ultimately not put it in the waste system. The value of the material has to be captured and reused before it even gets to a waste concept.”

Stemming the tide

So whose job is it to protect our beaches and seas? “It’s everyone’s duty to keep the beaches clean, individuals and government alike. We owe it not to just ourselves but to our children’s children to ensure that we are leaving the world a better place than we found it,” says Shoni. “I hounded the Environmental Protection Department and Food and Environmental Hygiene Department last year and as a result they have now organised cleaners to come to our beach and clean semi-regularly. This was a huge step forward and we are very pleased that they listen to complaints and act on it.”

Rob and Keilem are even more optimistic. Rob’s private campaign to eliminate 400 plastic bin liners for 250 days each year from his office in Central – and compel re-examination of personal behaviour – is working. The bins and their 100,000 pieces of plastic per year were gone by July. Keilem recalls a light-bulb moment with a woman who pulled out a plastic water bottle at an Eco Marine HK beach clean-up, and her subsequent vow to change.

Positives to be drawn from the events of this August include the government’s swift and decisive handling of the clean-up process, and the willingness of people across Hong Kong to get involved. On Lantau, an unprecedented number of groups and individuals rallied round to deal with the fallout, racing to pick up first the palm-oil coated plastic clumps and then the mountains of polystyrene before they were washed back into the sea.

Speaking from a community beach clean-up at Lower Cheung Sha on August 25, Frankie Yuen, owner of Lantau Grocer and Lantau Diner, said: “This is the first clean-up I’ve organised since July 2016. Around 25 volunteers took part and we picked up a lot of general refuse brought in by Typhoon Hato, including polystyrene. After all our hard work we finished up with a barbecue on the beach.”

Long-term, the easiest way to keep the beaches respectable – and appealing for everyone – is not to make them filthy to begin with.  Keilem, Shoni and Rob organise regular South Lantau beach clean- ups, with Rob also encouraging rubbish collection off roadsides.  “Clearing rubbish that has been thrown out of vehicles or littered by walkers is as good if not better than cleaning a beach, as once the rubbish is in the sea, it’s out of our control,” he says. “We have to stop our rubbish getting into the sea in the first place, and that is entirely within our control.”


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