Recycling and Circular Economy Plans in a Tight Spot
COVID-19 has exposed many weaknesses in the preparedness of our social and economic institutions and processes. This includes our fragile framework for reducing single-use products and packaging as well as creating a circular economy.
In reality, there have been both positive and negative impacts of the health crisis on our waste and resource management. Consumption has slowed resulting in less waste. At the same time, supply chain disruptions in our ‘just-in-time’ economy have resulted in one-off wasting of produce from beer to milk to fruits.
Additionally, as travel and commuting dipped, and factories halted, air pollution dropped around the world. These trends, however, will be short-lived as people recalibrate their understanding of the health costs of the economic implosion against the health costs of the pandemic.
By contrast, for packaging and other materials with a limited design life, we risk longer term negative impacts. Social distancing has seen huge growth in on-line purchases and home deliveries, and the associated increase in single-use packaging materials, reinforcing a trend already in progress for some time.
The use of throw away gloves and masks by the general public, and personal protective equipment by not just healthcare workers but by all frontline workers including bus drivers, doormen, tellers, and many others, has exploded and will likely become a necessary and ongoing part of life. The use of gloves by the general public also suggests consumers will now demand more products to be wrapped and sealed, creating significant road blocks towards a more circular economy and stymie advocacy efforts against single-use culture.
At the same time, recycling of useful materials has reduced. Amidst hygiene concerns, recently installed return vending machines for plastic bottles have been switched off and plastic recyclables can be seen piled up at community green stations.
Schools are closed, cutting another significant channel in collecting recyclables including used liquid cartons. While these trends may be reversed, questions about worker safety in receiving, collecting and sorting recyclables will need to be addressed. Recent studies reviewing the coronavirus persistence on different materials provide clues to measures we need to implement to protect ourselves and others against this and other contaminants.
While not surprising, it is the health and economic costs of the current pandemic that create the urgency to improve standards in handling materials. So recycling volumes are down and costs are up, straining any approach to a circular economy in Hong Kong. But there have been further set-backs in the economics of recycling. Municipal waste charging has been delayed. The HK government has decided to extend to 2023 its pilot schemes for testing logistics relative to waste charging in housing estates. At the same time, the drop in oil prices is undermining the value paid on return of used plastics.
With these changes evident, the economics of recycling has changed and advocates of a circular economy will have to sharpen their game and strategies. We are keenly considering various initiatives and studies to reduce waste arriving at our landfills.
An ‘Eat Without Waste’ program under development aims to introduce the collecting and washing of re-usable food containers to replace Styrofoam lunchboxes and noodle bowls.
As a member of the Single-Use Beverage Packaging Working Group, we are supporting the ‘Drink Without Waste’ campaign. This group of some 40 stakeholders agreed last year on a strategy -Reduce, Redesign, Recover, and Recycle – to cut the 5 million plastic bottles and liquid cartons arriving at our landfills by 70-90% by 2025. We expect the reduction to start in earnest later this year with various planned actions, from return vending machines to new bins to the opening of high-standard plastic recycling facilities.
Despite these difficulties today, we at Civic Exchange remain intent on supporting our community’s commitment to a circular economy for the longer term.
By Paul Zimmerman, Board director, Civic Exchange