Plastic Harbor

“May I have a plastic bag please?” A woman asked after she’d bought a fish from the seafood market. “It’s already inside,” the fishmonger replied.

Sounds funny? It’s no joke.

Just take a look at the garbage collected at the past beach cleanup events in Hong Kong South Hope Spot organized by Aquamerdian, among which plastics take up a large proportion – from disposable dinning wares, plastic bottles to plastic bags and styrofoam – almost any type of plastic you name it, you can uncover them from the ocean. If you haven’t taken part in any of these cleanup activities and witnessed firsthand for yourself, you probably won’t believe how extensive plastic pollution is!

Omnipresent plastics worldwide

IUCN stated that over 300 million tons of plastic are produced every year for use, of which at least 14 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year. Plastic accounts for 80% of all marine debris found from surface waters to deep-sea sediments. Not only fishes but seabirds, sea turtles, and marine mammals can become entangled in or ingest these plastics, causing suffocation, starvation, and drowning. And we, humans, are not immune to this threat. It’s estimated to take up hundreds of years for plastics to fully decompose, especially those plastics break down into microplastics, which in turn end up in the seafood we eat. With this amount of plastics disposed in the ocean every year, it’s probable that the fish you buy from supermarkets or wet markets today is contaminated with lethal, sub-lethal or pathogenic substances harmful to human health.[1]  

[1] Marine plastic pollution.  IUCN: Switzerland.


Plastic Hong Kong

Now let’s zero in on some of the official statistics to give you the reality of how serious plastic problem is in Hong Kong. It was recorded that municipal plastic waste discarded at landfills between 2017 and 2021 made up roughly 20-21% of the total municipal solid waste (plate. 2.14), according to 2021 Municipal Solid Waste Report released by Environmental Protection Department. Plastics was the third largest type of municipal wastes produced after food waste and paper over the years. In 2021, plastic waste ranked ahead of paper, accounting for the second highest percentage of municipal solid waste composition in Hong Kong (plate. 2.8). If breaking down into smaller categories, we see that plastic bags, plastic/polyfoam dinning wares and plastic bottles were among the top three plastic wastes in order of average daily quantity disposed within the same year (plate. 2.9). In short, almost one-fourth of the city’s wastes generated in the last 6 years was plastics and there’s a tendency that the annual disposal rate of plastics is going to far surpass that of paper in the years to come.[1] 

[1] 2021 Municipal Solid Waste Report.  Environmental Protection Department: Hong Kong.

Hidden cost of plastic pollution

Plastic pollution not only jeopardizes marine environment in Hong Kong South Hope Spot but also human health and socio-economic system.[1]

  1. Environmental cost

The lethal and sub-lethal effects of plastics include ingestion by whales, sea turtles, birds and fishes, potentially leading to starvation, drowning and lacerations in internal systems, and the smothering of coral reefs due to deprivation of oxygen and light. When plastics break down in the marine environment, microplastics, toxic chemicals and metals are transferred into open surface waters and eventually into sediments, where they can be assimilated into marine food chains. These micoplastics or tiny styrofoam particles we found at the beach cleanups could cause changes in gene and protein expression, inflammation, disruption of feeding behavior, impeding growth and reproductive success and leading to a range of diseases. In particular, microplastics may cause temperature fluctuations and affect the sex determination in green sea turtle eggs buried in the sand at Sham Wan, which is now restricted for access from April to October every year, thanks to our lobbying work at LegCo meeting.

  1. Health cost

The human health issues caused by marine litter and plastic pollution arise mainly from inadequate waste handling, especially on land; ingestion of contaminated seafoods; and exposure to pathogenic bacteria and substances transported into coastal waters by floating plastics. Evidence from clinical studies indicates that microplastics can enter the human body via ingestion, inhalation and absorption through the skin and accumulate in organs including the placenta. Chemicals associated with plastics such as methylmercury, plasticizers and flame retardants are associated with serious health impacts, such as neurodevelopmental disorders, reproductive deficiencies, metabolic, respiratory & cardiovascular diseases and thyroid cancer etc.

  1. Socio-economic cost

Marine plastics also result in damages to ships from collisions and entanglement in

propellers; disruption of port operations; reduction in efficiency and productivity of commercial fisheries and aquaculture operations; posing direct risks to fish stocks and aquaculture. In addition, it can have profound visual and aesthetic impacts on beaches and tourism. Four types of economic costs are embedded in marine plastic pollution, including (i) expenditures to prevent or recover from damage

caused by marine litter and plastic pollution; (ii) losses of output or revenues; (iii) losses of plastics as valuable material withdrawn from production; and (iv) welfare costs, including human health impacts and losses of ecosystem services.

[1] From Pollution to Solution: A Global Assessment of Marine Litter and Plastic Pollution.  (2021).  United Nations Environment Programme.

Hope for a plastic-free future

Currently, the Plastic Shopping Bag Charging Scheme has been fully implemented in Hong Kong to limit the use of plastic bags at all retail stores. A month ago, the scheme on Regulation of Disposable Plastic Tableware (DPT) also comes into force to impose a ban on sales and provision of nine types of DPT for both dine-in and take-away customers,namely expanded polystyrene tableware, straws, stirrers, cutlery (such as forks, knives and spoons), plates, cups, cup lids, food containers (such as bowls and boxes), and food container covers. Plastic substitutes” that are considered hazard to marine environment such as oxo-degradable plastics and biodegradable plastics are also covered, as most of these “plastic substitutes” products would only turn into microplastic flakes or be biodegraded under specific conditions.[1]

Apart from DPT, manufacturing, sales and distribution of wide-raining disposable plastic products are completely banned, such as cotton buds, balloon sticks, inflatable cheer sticks, non-medical use transparent gloves and hotel toiletries. Under the Scheme, only products without any plastic content would be considered acceptable alternatives, such as those made of paper, bamboo, soft wood, aluminum foil and plant fiber materials (e.g. wood pulp, straw pulp, bagasse).

[1] Press Release: Government introduces Bill into Legislative Council for regulation of disposable plastic tableware and other plastic products.  (2023, March 15).  Hong Kong SAR Government.