Plastic bags are a super convenient short-term solution that are used across may aspects of daily life but what about their long term-effect on the planet? EL’s Melinda Murphy takes a closer look at the impact on the environment and how we can help to reduce plastic bag usage in Hong Kong.
Making a change
Last month was Plastic Free July, a global movement to encourage people around the world to stop using plastic. And it got us here at Expat Living thinking about our own use of plastic. So, we made a change. Prior to this issue, there were elements of our laminated front cover that weren’t recyclable. Now? The entire magazine is completely recyclable. And it feels good; we’re proud of ourselves.
How about you; what can you do to help? Well, you could start by refusing single-use plastic bags. Why? Because the world uses five trillion of them a year! That’s 160,000 for every second, or 700 a year for every single person on the planet. Truth be told, your own plastic bag usage may well be closer to double the 700, as there are plenty of people around the world who don’t use any at all. Wealthier countries tend to use more.
Granted, those numbers aren’t exact. In fact, nobody seems to be able to really keep track of how many bags are being produced and used. But even the most conservative figures, those published by the Earth Policy Institute, suggest that two million bags are used per minute. Worse yet, according to environmental resource The World Counts, only one percent of these bags are recycled.
Ouch. That’s bad. You know it’s bad. I mean, we can all list the things that are terrible about plastic bags: harm to animals, contamination of food supplies, global warming and so much more. You know all this. You must – the message is everywhere you turn.
Places with bag bans
Thankfully, the world is finally listening. As of last July, 127 countries have banned or taxed bags, according to the United Nations. And it seems everybody is getting on the bandwagon; even an Al Qaeda-backed terrorist group reportedly banned plastic shopping bags last summer as “a serious threat to the well-being of humans and animals alike.” Wow. They’ll blow up people, but won’t use a plastic bag – seems a bit ironic.
Bangladesh was the first country to completely ban bags – way back in 2002. But it is Africa, perhaps surprisingly, that has the most countries (34) adopting bag-related regulations, some of which are pretty tough, too. Kenya is particularly punitive: plastic bag manufacturers, importers, distributors and users face fines of up to US$38,000 or four years in jail.
But do these bans work? Sometimes. Denmark was the first to pass a plastic bag tax, in 1993. Now? Each person living there uses just four bags a year. Some studies show that, while shopping bag use declines after legislation is passed, the sales of trash bags climbs. Kenya has even seen bag “cartels” pop up: people who smuggle in plastic bags from neighbouring Uganda and Tanzania. Crazy, right? And, of course, the folks who make the plastic bags are doing all they can to fight these bans. After all, they’ve made a ton of money since this convenient product exploded on the scene post-World War II. Plastic bags are such a part of life now. It’s hard to imagine that it wasn’t until the 1970s that they gained popularity.
Action at home
The good news is that people here in Hong Kong are starting to do something. For one thing, there has been a plastic bag levy in place since 2009. This was introduced on the back of figures from 2005 indicating that eight billion plastic shopping bags were disposed of in HK landfill each year – or three bags per person per day. That amounted to around 11 percent of the territory’s total municipal solid waste.
The levy had a slow rollout, with the first phase up to 2015 meeting with only mixed success; people complained of unclear guidelines and of retailers not holding up their end of the bargain. Things have improved since then, though there are still calls that the 50- cent levy could use an overhaul. Other ongoing discussions surround an upcoming deposit scheme for plastic bottles, and focusing on the problem of plastic cutlery waste.
Separate initiatives have been led by the likes of Drink Without Waste, a group of local NGOs and Hong Kong’s leading beverage producers and bottlers. Their goal is to develop strategies and actions to significantly reduce waste from beverage consumption. Similarly, The Green Earth seeks to use its experience in environmental issues to move Hong Kong towards a more sustainable mode of development, including through campaigns that directly tackle the issue of plastic.
It’s a good start, but we can do more. Don’t wait for a law or a tax. Just take it upon yourself and do the right thing. Bring your own bags. Stop using plastic ones. Help save the planet. It’s that simple.
Did you know?
#1 The amount of petroleum it takes to produce one plastic bag could drive a car eleven metres.
#2 A plastic bag is used for an average of 12 minutes.
#3 Plastic bags are among the 12 items of debris most found in coastal clean-ups.
#4 If we joined all the plastic bags in the world together, they would circumnavigate the globe 4,200 times.
#5 If just one person used recycled plastic bags over their lifetime, they would be removing 22,000 plastic bags from the environment.
See more in our Living in Hong Kong section
This article first appeared in the August/September 2019 issue of Expat Living magazine. Subscribe now so you never miss an issue.