COVID-19 virus exacerbates another crisis: plastic waste - China Daily


COVID-19 virus exacerbates another crisis: plastic waste


Last year, research company eMarketer forecast that e-commerce sales worldwide would reach US$3.5 trillion in 2019 and expected the number to grow to US$5 trillion in 2021, expanding at an average rate of 20 percent a year. However, the estimate looks far too conservative now. HKTV Mall, a popular local online shop in Hong Kong, saw its orders grow by 165 percent year-on-year in February. In mid-July, it announced that delivery might once again be delayed or rescheduled due to a “rapid increase in the number of orders” as COVID-19 cases surged in Hong Kong. Though the increase was sparked by the partial lockdown due to the pandemic, it suggests the new online buying habit of consumers is expected to continue in general.


But the convenience brought to consumers by e-commerce has come with a big price: escalating plastic waste pollution.


According to a joint report by the World Economic Forum and Ellen MacArthur Foundation, packaging makes up 26 percent of all plastics production, but only 14 percent of it will be recycled. With the rise of e-commerce, the plastic waste problem is worsening.


Meanwhile, disposable face masks which are made with plastic variants such as polypropylene have almost become a daily necessity, not only in Hong Kong but also in many other places as well. The increasing awareness of personal protection has driven up the consumption of disposable face masks. The World Health Organization estimated in March that the world needed 89 million medical masks every month as the pandemic lasts. France alone ordered 2 billion masks in April. The huge consumption of face masks has raised concern among conservationists. Two years ago, almost 20 pounds (9 kilograms) of plastic bags were found inside the stomach of a dead pilot whale. We might see surgical masks there next time.


What's more, with the implementation of the Prohibition on Group Gathering Regulations, people turn to food deliveries and takeaway meals, creating a sharp increase in the use of disposable plastic tableware. A survey by a local green group, Greeners Action, over the first week of April suggested that the volume of single-use plastics for takeaways during the pandemic was 2.2 times more compared with the same time last year. An estimate of over 100 million pieces of disposable tableware and plastic bags were disposed of every week. Furthermore, the recycling collection in the city has been disrupted due to the pandemic, so the percentage of plastics being recycled is greatly reduced.


To tackle plastic waste requires collaboration among governments, citizens, private organizations and other stakeholders to work together in finding smart solutions


Worse still, plastics take up to 450 years to decompose. Therefore, we need to tackle the issue immediately to reduce the harm brought onto us and wildlife by the COVID-19 waste.


The medical industry for years has had a dedicated disposal procedure making disposal of the surgical mask not an issue. Therefore, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government should educate the public to dispose of the used masks properly. Stricter measures may need to be put in place. When the weather gets cooler, reusable masks can be encouraged to minimize the negative impact on nature.


For takeaway meals, bringing along one's own containers is encouraged, perhaps with a little incentive. However, it is much more challenging for food delivery and online purchase with no "one-size-fits-all answer", as stated by a DHL executive. Currently, more and more big corporations are seeking eco-friendly options.


The bamboo commonly used in construction sites in Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland has been an easily renewable and durable source with adequate strength for a wide application. Computer hardware manufacturer Dell has used it as packaging to protect some of its products during transport. Swedish furniture giant Ikea has promised to phase out all single-use plastic products from its stores and restaurants by the end of this year. British company Woolcool has used wool from sheep to develop a sustainable insulated packaging alternative, which can maintain products in chilled, frozen and room temperatures, and can be reused up to four times.


A mainland startup has also developed a green recyclable packaging box called ZerOBox, which can be reused up to 14 times. The new invention is waterproof, heat-resistant, and shockproof, and requires no tape or glue for sealing.


Meanwhile, e-commerce giant Alibaba's logistics arm, Cainiao, is working with its customers in its environmental efforts. Its new recycling program encourages customers to leave unwanted packaging boxes at specific collection points, which will be picked up by the company for reuse or recycle. The firm also uses energy-efficient delivery vehicles for transport.


At the same time, the European Union has a very ambitious plan with a target of recycling 55 percent of plastics used by 2025; and by 2030, all plastics in packaging should be recyclable.


To tackle plastic waste requires collaboration among governments, citizens, private organizations and other stakeholders to work together in finding smart solutions. By doing so, we hope to take one step further in protecting wildlife and our environment.




Dr. Winnie Tang

Adjunct Professor, Department of Computer Science, Faculty of Engineering; Department of Geography, Faculty of Social Sciences and Faculty of Architecture, The University of Hong Kong