Chapter 1. What are single-use plastics?

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Plastics are light, durable and inexpensive. They are commonly used in our daily lives. However, their massive production and consumption will cause pollution, as they can persist in the environment for hundreds of years, affecting our ecosystems, endangering animal lives and also threatening human health.

Plastics are mainly derived from fossil fuels. The process of extracting and transporting these fuels, and the subsequent refining and manufacturing of plastics, generate greenhouse gases that aggravates climate change. Accommodating more plastics in the landfills would shorten their life span and increase methane emission. To achieve sustainable development, we need to avoid excessive use of plastics.

Why do we have to deal with single-use plastics?

Single-use plastics are particularly harmful to the environment because they are usually made from low-value and hard-to-recycle plastics and are small in size, which make them difficult to be separated, sorted and cleaned for recycling. Also, these products are meant to be used only once or for a limited number of times and are usually disposed of right after use. Thus, the control of single-use plastics has become a key environmental issue globally and many places have put forward plans to tackle it.

Besides, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the demand for single-use plastic items, for example, personal protective equipment, face masks, gloves, and bottled hand sanitizers. The pandemic has also popularised single-use food packaging, takeaway, delivery services and online shopping, which increase the society’s reliance on single-use plastics.


A. Definition and Examples of Single-Use Plastics

Different places have slightly different definitions on single-use plastics. In general, single-use plastic products are designed to be used only once or for a limited number of times before disposal. The definitions of such plastics in other international bodies/places are presented below:

European Union (EU)

Single-use plastic product means a product that is made wholly or partly from plastic and that is not conceived, designed or placed on the market to accomplish, within its life span, multiple trips or rotations by being returned to a producer for refill or re-used for the same purpose for which it was conceived.

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South Australia

Plastic means a material made from, or comprising, organic polymers, whether plant extracts or of fossil fuel origin;

Plastic product means a product comprised, in whole or in part, of plastic;

Single-use, in relation to a product, means a product designed or intended to be used once or for a limited number of times before being disposed of.

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Single-use plastic items have already dominated almost every aspect of our lives and can be found in numerous products. Some commonly found single-use plastic products around us are:

Local product packaging
Local packaging for sales
  • box for containing fruit / eggs
  • non-beverage container
  • pre-packaging for vegetables
  • multi-pack ring (i.e. those for binding several canned beverage)
Local retail packaging
Local packaging for sales
  • foam tray and platter for fresh fruit, meat, fish or poultry
  • wrapping for binding several onsale products
Local packaging for logistics and online shopping
Local packaging for sales
  • plastic wrap
  • bubble wrap
  • packing peanuts
  • plastic tape
  • plastic rope
Shopping Bag
 Shopping Bag
  • shopping bag (including flat-top bag)
Festival and celebration products
Festival and celebration products
  • inflatable cheer stick
  • glow stick
  • single-use tableware sold at retail outlets (e.g. cutlery, stirrer, straw, plate)
  • balloon and balloon sticks
  • banner
  • gift wrapping
  • event / festival decoration
Toiletries distributed by hotels
Toiletries distributed by hotels
  • toothbrush
  • toothpaste
  • shower cap
  • comb
  • showering product in small bottle
Health and protective equipment
Health and protective equipment
  • syringe
  • personal protective equipment (PPE)
  • face mask
  • other medical items like surgical product, medical disinfection product
Others
Others
  • umbrella bag
  • supplementary tool sold together with a product for its usage or consumption, such as plastic straw attached to a paper beverage carton
  • other toiletries like plastic stemmed cotton buds
  • miscellaneous items such as signage for meetings, conventions and exhibitions
Items that will soon be covered by new measures of the Government
Items that will soon be covered by new measures of the Government
  • beverage container
  • disposable plastic tableware provided at catering premises
  • disposable plastic foam (EPS) tableware sold to local end-consumers

B. Why do we have to deal with single-use plastics?

Single-use plastics can be environmentally problematic. Plastic wastes whether on land, in ocean, or in a river can persist in the environment for centuries. The unique properties of plastics such as durability, resistance to corrosion and water make plastics nearly impossible to completely degrade in nature.

Between 2013 and 2014, over 70% of marine refuse were plastic and foam plastic items. Also, the top ten types of marine refuse in Hong Kong include plastic and foam plastic fragments of different sizes, single-use plastic tableware such as food containers, and beverage bottles1.

Composition of Shoreline Refuse
(April 2013 - March 2014)
(percentage by count)

Plastic 65.8%, Foam Plastic 19.5%, Others 3.6%, Wood 2.8%, Rubber 2.1%, Cloth 2.0%, Paper / Cardboard 2.0%, Glass / Ceramic 1.1%, Metal 1.0%

1 Investigation on the Sources and Fates of Marine Refuse in Hong Kong (the Study) published in 2015 by the Environmental Protection Department.

Top 10 types of marine refuse found at coastal area in Hong Kong
(percentage of marine refuse by count)

Plastic pieces23.7%
Plastic - Food wrappers, Labels, Packets7.4%
Foam plastic fragments (>5cm)5.8%
Foam plastic fragments (2-5cm)5.5%
Foam plastic fragments (<2cm)5.5%
Plastic - Caps, Lids5.0%
Plastic - Hard items (surf board, etc)4.8%
Plastic - Cutlery (spoons, knives, forks, straws, stirrers)4.4%
Food containers, Cups, Plates3.7%
Plastic - Beverage bottles (<2L)3.1%
Chart

According to “Monitoring of Solid Waste in Hong Kong - Waste Statistics for 2019”2, some products such as metal (including aluminium cans) are well recycled in Hong Kong but it is totally a different situation for plastics. Many plastic waste items, including single-use plastic consumables like food packaging, bottles, straws, and bags, end up in landfills because they cannot be recycled due to contamination, blended materials or additives. Therefore, the recycling industry has to spend huge effort in sorting, which results in high operation cost for plastic recycling.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Environment Policy Paper No.12 in 2018

Global plastic recycling rate

only 14%-18%

Common materials recycling rate

50%

2 https://www.wastereduction.gov.hk/sites/default/files/msw2019.pdf

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