The Soko Islands, a largely uninhabited archipelago to the south of Lantau, represent one of Hong Kong’s last pristine areas. However, in February this year, they began to show the signs of a rising pandemic when tangled, jellyfish-like objects were found washed ashore by environmental groups that monitor the islands. On one of his inspections, Gary Stokes, founder of conservation organisation OceansAsia, was dismayed to find hundreds of used face masks of all types and colours, including the N95 version and the more common single-use surgical styles.
Twice a month, Stokes and his team conduct plastic pollution research projects in different areas of Hong Kong, which involves microplastics surveys and analysing rubbish that has accumulated at beaches from Discovery Bay to Peng Chau and Chi Ma Wan. Global publicity around plastic waste in recent years had started to change consumption habits in Hong Kong, but Stokes noticed that the pandemic was causing any progress to backslide.
A Heavy Toll On The Environment
“The more noticeable thing [lately] has been the constitution of the trash,” Stokes says, speaking in August. “We’re seeing a lot more takeaway utensils, straws and things we had actually started to see reducing when we were cutting back on our plastic consumption.”
Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic last December, there has been an increase in the use of disposable items, such as cutlery and coffee cups, especially in Hong Kong, where safeguarding public health, in certain instances, has meant residents and businesses putting precautionary measures ahead of environmental concerns. Coffee shops and restaurants began rejecting reusable containers and food deliveries boomed, adding to the 13 million tonnes of plastic that the United Nations reports are dumped into the ocean annually.
Disposable face masks are usually made of polypropylene, which is not biodegradable, though can be recycled where facilities exist. However, the Environmental Protection Department states that because most masks are made of composite materials that are difficult to separate, “they are not suitable for recycling or discarding in recycling bins, to avoid contaminating other recyclables”.
In April, following the second wave of Covid-19 in Hong Kong, Greeners Action, another local environmental group, surveyed more than 2,000 residents and discovered that people were ordering takeaway meals twice as often compared to last year. That rate intensified when the government restricted dining in at restaurants to small groups and limited operating hours. Chain cafés such as Coco Espresso, Starbucks and Pacific Coffee also stopped allowing customers to bring their own reusable cups to avoid contamination.