Cover OceansAsia founder Gary Stokes holding a string of face masks that washed up on a beach in February (Photo:

The environmental cost of keeping a pandemic at bay

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.

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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.

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Balancing Health And The Environment

Isn’t stopping someone from using their own Thermos a slight overkill? It depends who you talk to. When asked to clarify whether reusable items were more dangerous than disposables, the Hong Kong Private Hospital Association highlighted the risks involved “through contact with contaminated articles [such as by] touching anything that other people have touched”.

Hugo Lau, a doctor working in emergency medicine, says single-use face masks and utensils are effective tools against spreading the virus. “Since viruses can remain viable on objects for hours, mugs could transmit Covid-19 at restaurants via indirect contact if they have previously been used and not thoroughly cleaned. Splashes created while serving food or drinks can also be a route of transmission. One-use utensils remove these risks.”

It's not about recycling, it's about consuming less of these kinds of products and voting with your wallet
Sean Lee-Davies

As Lau sees it, while the pandemic has created more waste, it has helped the environment in other areas, such as by lowering carbon emissions. “During the ban on social gatherings, carbon emissions were reduced due to fewer vehicles on the roads,” he says. “There is less consumption in general.”

“No one’s not going to use a face mask because of the environment. However, you can purchase sustainable or reusable ones,” says Hong Kong conservationist and filmmaker Sean Lee-Davies, who founded Project C:Change, a social enterprise that raises awareness in Asia about global environmental degradation and climate change.

Weigh Your Options

Disposable masks are sometimes the only option. James Marlow, founder of eco group Green Hour, which operates beach clean-ups and initiatives to redistribute food from bakery chains like Maxims to people in need, recognises that reusables can be a luxury for some. “Many individuals we support, such as homeless people and street cleaners, simply do not have the facilities available during the day to use reusable items all the time,” he says.

“It isn’t the most sustainable option; however, people’s health is just as important at a time like this.”

Though he understands that disposable tableware may offer a degree of reassurance when it comes to hygiene, Marlow still urges people to use reusable options where possible, especially as the government eases social distancing measures. “The main issue that needs to be repaired is people’s confidence in reusable items and shifting from a reliance on single use, which ultimately is no different when you consider they are left out in the open most of the time in relatively warm, humid environments that are a perfect breeding ground for bacteria,” he says. “At least with your own cup you know where it’s been and how clean it is.”

Stokes, who runs the vegan restaurant Hemingway’s in Discovery Bay, has long campaigned for a reduction in plastic packaging in Hong Kong supermarkets. “Now, of course, everything is being wrapped individually,” he says. He hopes to see more use of innovative packaging like bagasse, which is made from sugarcane pulp and is compostable, but notes that greener materials come with a price. “Unfortunately, a lot of those options cost more. At this time, restaurant owners do not want to be spending any more dollars because we’re already stretched,” adds Stokes.

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What's Next?

Every developed nation is currently trying to figure out what to do with plastic waste since mainland China, the original destination for most of the world’s recyclables, closed the door to foreign imports, including from Hong Kong, in early 2018. While Hong Kong government waste statistics show a jump in the rate of plastic being recycled locally since then, only 3.6 per cent of the 2,343 tonnes of plastic generated per day were recycled in the same year. Effective recycling also requires demand for the reclaimed product: due to low oil prices, it is currently cheaper to manufacture new plastic than recycle existing plastic.

This January, the Environmental Protection Department launched a two-year trial recycling scheme in the Eastern, Kwun Tong and Sha Tin districts, providing free collection of plastic waste like bags, straws, containers and other packaging materials. However, materials like Vegware, made with plant-derived PLA plastic and touted as a sustainable alternative to plastic tableware, are not a panacea, as they require industrial composting in special facilities that Hong Kong does not yet have. As a result, the conversation among environmental campaigners has moved beyond recycling to not acquiring plastic in the first place.

“It’s not just about recycling; it’s about consuming less of these kinds of products and voting with your wallet,” LeeDavies says. Stokes adds: “Obviously, the best way is just to not use plastic at all.”

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