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The Plastic Waste Crisis

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The plastic waste crisis is exacerbated by low recycling rate in Hong Kong. Chu of the Green Earth suggested that reduction at source would be the only solution. Among developed countries in Asia, Hong Kong owns a relatively high generation rate of daily municipal waste. Around 2000 tonnes of plastic waste are produced and sent to landfills every day, which could fill a hundred shipping containers.

Single-use plastics, can be referred as disposable plastics which are intended to be used once only before disposal or recycling. Plastic packaging is the most common form. Plastic bottles, container, grocery bags are examples of application. Customers are given a single-use plastic bags after a transaction as a convenient and hygienic mean to carry the goods. – commercially successful – price, durability and resistance. PSBs are usually made of a durable, lightweight, flexible plastic.

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According to a recent estimation, 10 million plastic bags are consumed worldwide every minute. Area of the accumulated amount in a year is equivalent to twice of France. Growth of the production of plastic has surmounted all other types of materials since 1950s.(8), followed by a replacement of durable plastic by the single-use plastic in the world. In the latest International Costal Cleanup Report, plastic shopping bag is one of the most common items found that reveals a poor plastic waste management systems. Governments have identified the single-use plastics problem and mainly address on plastic bags.

Source of plastic

Plastic is manufactured from fossil fuel with crude oil and natural gas as the main raw material (Changshe Norbu 2009; 10) which are non-renewable resources. Besides, a huge amount of electricity is needed in the production process. 1000 HDPE plastic bags require 6.151 kWh (Edwards, 2006). Taking UK as example, 10 billion PSBs are distributed in 2008 (DEFRA, 2011). The energy involved in their production is equivalent to household consumption for 15000 families (Pennwell Corporation, 2011). The process of plastic bags production gives rise to 4200 tonnes of solid waste in a year (Edwards, 2006).

Energy and resources are depleted in the course of production, emitting toxic chemicals that contribute to global warming (UNEP 2005). Report on PSB by the Queensland Parliament in Australia: describes PSB as “a short term convenience with long term impacts” (Queensland 2010; 5). At the end of its lifetime, a product or packaging is recycled, incinerated, landfilled, dumped in uncontrolled sites, or littered in the environment. According to recent estimates, 79% of the plastic waste ever produced now sits in landfills, dumps or in the environment, while about 12% has been incinerated and only 9% has been recycled if current consumption patterns and waste management practices do not improve, by 2050 there will be about 12 billion tons of plastic litter in landfills and the natural environment//

Litter

PSB is a prominent source of litter as it is designed for one-off usage. Many would end up in landfills without being broken down (Llywodraeth Cymru, 2011). Plastic bag may leach toxic chemicals in to the soil after being discarded in landfills, then adulterate A thousand years are required to decompose a plastic bag (Queensland 2010; Clapp & Swanston 2009). These plastic would continue to exist in form of smaller pieces instead of being completely degraded (Queensland 2010; Clapp & Swanston 2009). 13 millions tonne of plastic waste ends up to the ocean each year. PSB accounted for 9% of litter found during the International Coastal Cleanup in 2006 (Tweed, 2008) 0.7 tonnes of plastic bag was found in a whale’s stomach (News24, 2011)

Those bags are being mistaken by the marine organism as food, causing their suffocation. (Msnbc.com, 2010; Underwatertimes.com, 2006) Pose threat to wild animals, marine life and livestock through ingestion and entanglement of PSB (EPHC, 2008 report) Scientific research proved that toxic chemicals are transferred into animals’ tissues. By 2050, the weight of plastic waste will exceed that of fish in the ocean. Experts warn the public that plastic waste has already entered the food chain and would soon affect human. Plastic bag litter has been known to clog up waterways and inflame natural disasters. Bangladesh experienced a destructive floods in 1988 with two-thirds of the country deluged, leading to serious health hazards. The incident was caused by poor drainage and sewer system blocked by plastic bags.

Plastic recycling market: China Imports into China account for 56% (by weight) of the worldwide imports of waste plastic1 destined for recycling. In July 2017, the Chinese government announced that the importation of eight types of plastic scraps including PE, PS, PET and PVC will be banned starting from 2018.2 Chinese officials reported that the decision was taken to protect the environment and public health, since hazardous waste was found mixed inside the waste imported. While this announcement was initially met with worldwide alarm, it can present an opportunity for countries that have historically counted on China as a plastic waste importer to identify new strategies to deal with plastic waste and strengthen their local recycling industry. Source: 1 Velis, 2014; 2 Toloken. 2017

Sustainability is often being emphasised in the roadmap of global community.

Its development would meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,balancing between economic growth, care for the environment and social well-being. (p.37; Moldan et al. 2012; 1) Sustainable Development Goals are included in the 2030 Agenda of the United Nations, advocating environmental protection to combat climate change and protect ecosystems. To alleviate the plastic pollution problem, governments around the world develop different policy frameworks and adopt various measures. A wide range of actions are taken by individuals, governments, public and private sector to change human behavior on plastic bags.

Global trends

Since the 1990s, number of governments that have developed policies of plastic consumption has been growing rapidly. Measures against PSB could be found on all six populated continents (FDEP 2010). Governments collaborate with the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) with its mission- “Pollution Free Planet”. In their meeting, the marine plastic pollution issue has been addressed. Countries are encouraged to prioritize measures to reduce unnecessary plastic use and promote environmentally-sound alternatives.

With reference to the EU Directive 2015/720 , member states set plans to develop policy instruments to reach the sustained reduction goal. They set sights on reducing the lightweight PSB consumption to a maximum of 90 per person a year by the end of 2019, and 40 by 2025.

In general, there are two approaches to deal with the plastic waste problem. First, build up an effective recycling system of PSBs; Second, implement policy instruments to reduce the production or consumption of PSBs. It is believed by Bahri that the primary target should be prevention of waste as it forms the top of the waste management hierarchy. (Bahri, 2005) Reduction in PSB → affect virtually all aspects of the PSB consumption flow: accruing less overall waste (litter and sent to landfills), less waste and emissions created from use and disposal overall reduction = fewer PSB will need to be produced and manufactured → less fossil fuels, energy, raw materials, waste, and emissions needed and created during the production and manufacturing processes

Social awareness and public pressure

Social awareness and education would determine the formulation and performance of a policy. Through transfer of knowledge and promotion of public awareness, people are being influenced in attitudes and encouraged to change their daily behavior progressively. Two teenagers in Bali have initiated a four-year social campaign “Bye Bye Plastic Bag” to encourage citizens to boycott plastic bags. Starting with a petition which gained support of over 100,000 signatures, the young students successfully pressurized the local government to phase out plastic bags from the island by 2018.

Voluntary reduction strategies and agreements

Retailers and producers play important roles in executing measures, as well as attaining behavioral change Being the supplier of PSB, they could cooperate with the government and engage in voluntary agreements of reduction strategies. Unlike a policy ban or levy, restrictive rules are not adopted to force a cut-off in the market. Reduction strategies aim at reducing single-use plastic in long term through consumers’ voluntary actions. Before a ban is in place, the use of reusable bags should be promoted until it becomes a normal behavior for shoppers.

In Canada, some organisations offered reusable bags for free to promote green alternatives to customers. Public acceptance in town towards green products has increased with more individuals replacing single-use PSB with reusable bag. Comparing with law enactment, legislation requires complicated and lengthy process. The Ministry of Environment in New Zealand hence preferred voluntary agreement to call for action on single-use PSB reduction after experiencing substantial public pressure. Two major supermarket chains got involved with the department to completely cut off such bags by 2018. Walker, general manager of the chain said the ban would save 350 million PSBs a year used at 183 Countdown stores.

Criteria

These measures can be broadly divided into three categories/ core mechanisms Three pillars of sustainability Economic Sustainability To maintain economic sustainability, the increasing consumption of resources over time should not reduce future capital to a large extent, including man-made, human, social and natural capital. (Moldan et al., 2012) This criteria refers to the “impacts on the economic conditions of stakeholders and on economic systems at local, national, and global levels“ (GRI 2011; 25). Government, retailers and consumers are identified as the three main stakeholders in this case. Putting a policy into effect requires a lot of effort and many procedures from the government. From designing and drafting, going through the legislature, all the way to execution and promotion. Cost are incurred for the administrative work, legislative drafting, enforcement and all the post-implementation work including education, monitoring, evaluation of the policy. At the same time, government may benefit from the reduced cost in environmental aspects or receive revenue depending on the policy nature.

Retailers buy plastic bags from manufacturer and sell the goods to customers for use or consumption. Their cost and revenue would be affected by the PSB policy through the change in demand for production and consumption. Besides, it is possible for the retailers to share their cost with customers by increasing the marked price so as to compensate their loss. Objective of the PSB policy is reduce consumption of the single-use plastic bags by changing consumer behavior. Consumer may have to pay extra expenses for the purchase of the goods due to the shifted economic burden of the retailers. In long term, consumers may be able to save money after their change of habits.

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