‘Confusion over biodegradable plastics undermining Hong Kong’s recycling efforts’ – South China Morning Post

Hong Kong’s largest government-funded collection network handles biodegradable plastics inconsistently, an environmental group has found, warning it will undermine residents’ recycling efforts.
The Green Earth, which made the discovery, called on authorities to issue guidelines as non-recyclable materials become more popular with consumers.
Last November, the group asked 43 of the 46 recycling stations under the Green@Community programme about their recycling guidelines for biodegradable plastics. It found that while staff at 22 centres rejected such materials, those at 13 accepted them, with eight responding that they were unclear about the instructions.
The group said it was concerned that with the increasing popularity of biodegradable plastic products, the lack of guidelines would compromise the overall quality of recycled goods.
“Frontline staff have little knowledge about whether biodegradable plastics can be recycled,” said Wenky Cheung Nga-ting, the group’s senior project officer.
“The Environmental Protection Department lacks clear guidance on how to deal with biodegradable plastic products.”
Biodegradable plastics refer to polymers that can break down into carbon dioxide and water, usually by the action of living organisms, such as through composting or hydrolysis. They can be petroleum-based or produced naturally by plants or bacteria.
Since additives are mixed in during production to speed up their decomposition, the impurities would undermine the recycling process.
Such materials, believed to be less harmful to the environment, have gained traction over the years following their discovery in 1996. According to industry association European Bioplastics, worldwide production is expected to more than triple to 6.3 million tonnes a year by 2027, from 1.8 million tonnes in 2021.
In Hong Kong, the materials have become more prevalent as a substitute for conventional plastic bags and can be found in products such as umbrella covers, rice sacks and drink cups.
The Legislative Council on Wednesday will discuss a bill regulating single-use plastic tableware that includes a ban on the production, sale and distribution of OXO-degradable products, which only degrade in the presence of oxygen, heat and UV light.
If the bill is passed, disposable plastic utensils, such as polyfoam receptacles, straws and stirring sticks, will also be prohibited by the end of this year. The sale and free distribution of single-use items, such as glow sticks, umbrella bags and toiletries in hotels, will also be outlawed.
OXO-degradable plastic, usually found in dry-cleaning bags, utensils and compostable plastic bags, will not be forbidden until 2025.
The Green Earth said: “It creates a regulatory vacuum that will not stop the circulation of biodegradable plastics in Hong Kong.”
The group warned that if biodegradable plastic products entered recycling facilities, they would contaminate the process and compromise the quality of the goods.
The Environmental Protection Department said Hong Kong had no large-scale facilities for processing biodegradable plastics, adding it would improve communication with operators and staff at Green@Community recycling centres on how to treat such materials.
Dr Chung Shan-shan, a senior biology lecturer at Baptist University specialising in waste management, said the varying standards showed the government’s regulations were “behind the times” because biodegradable plastics could be recycled separately at centres.
“It has a negative impact on residents’ confidence in recycling,” she said. “It would be very frustrating if they saw what they had recycled ended up in landfills because those things were incompatible with the conventional recycling scheme.
“Such plastics, if they are truly biodegradable, are impurities to recycled conventional plastics, affecting the end-products’ durability and physical performance.”
In 2021 the European Union introduced a ban on OXO-degradable plastics after the parliament in 2018 passed a resolution labelling them a “distraction from real solutions”.
Taiwan has prohibited single-use products made of biodegradable polylactide, or PLA, because people confused them with conventional plastic products. Los Angeles has banned straws made of the material.
In a separate test in October and November, The Green Earth tested 12 samples of so-called biodegradable disposable umbrella bags collected from shopping centres, commercial buildings and banks, all with labels saying they were degradable.
But lab test results showed that all contained polythene, or PE, a conventional, non-biodegradable polymer.
The group expressed concerns that a lack of government regulations on such labels would encourage greenwashing, where products were marked as environmentally friendly when they were not.
“The original intention of using biodegradable plastics is for environmental protection,” Cheung said. “Authorities should set standards for such materials so they can be regulated at the source.”
Hong Kong customs said it had to consider the actual circumstances of individual events before determining whether such cases breached the Trade Descriptions Ordinance.
A spokesman added that anyone convicted of using a false description for their goods or services could face a maximum fine of HK$500,000 (US$63,717) and five years’ imprisonment.


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