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Partying without creating a pile of plastic cups?

Dr Merrin Pearse‘s guide to avoiding the perils of plastic during the party season.

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As you enjoy the summer parties at the beach, next to a pool or on a junk you are probably holding a plastic cup for those refreshing beverages. Unfortunately many of those plastic cups and plastic glasses are often single use items grabbed on the way to the party and left in the rubbish (or maybe put in the recycling bins). One bonus at these private events is that there are normally a couple of cups provided per person and sometimes the host provides a pen so you can write your name on your cup, so you can use the same cup for the whole party.

Now imagine you are the host of a large party, where 1000s of people come to enjoy a sporting event or music festival. Everyone is expected to have a drink or two, and it seems every time you get a new drink you get a new single use plastic cup, especially at large events in Hong Kong. Does this have to happen? This is a question that some of the organisers of large ticketed events in Hong Kong are asking. Why are these organisers even asking the question about improving recycling? I think a main reason is that when they look at similar overseas events to theirs, they see much better handling and lower volumes of waste by their peers.

So following the standard approach to waste reduction the event organisers and their suppliers are exploring options to Reduce, Reuse and Recycle with the hope of minimising the volume of plastic cups that end up in the landfill.

Don’t create it to start with – Reduce
It was previously common for beverage companies to provide unlimited free plastic cups along with their drinks at events. Today that is seen as wasteful in terms of a cost to their business, though also a cost to community through unnecessary waste going to landfill.

So rather than taking a new cup ask to have your cup refilled, or if possible refuse to take a free single use cup. Instead bring along your own favourite plastic cup to use, which is easily identifiable amongst your friends cups.

Keep it in circulation as long as possible – Reuse
The HK Jockey Club at their Wednesday night Happy Valley races now reuse jugs whereas a few years ago these were going in the recycling or rubbish after each race. It seems strange to think that jugs that were single use are now a driver to having cups being used multiple times. Jugs are collected during each race event and then washed over the next couple of days ready for reuse at the next racing day.

Make new from old – Recycle
This should be the last step and ideally only for cups that have already been used multiple times, not for single use cups. Recycling in Hong Kong is, let’s say, not world class. If the challenge of separating the plastic cups from general rubbish is achieved, then event organisers can discover that “dirty” plastic cups may not even get recycled, even if they have been delivered to “Recyclers”.

Why you may ask? Well most of Hong Kong’s plastic recyclers are really plastic traders who do not have more than very basic cleaning and packing facilities. None of them have large automated materials recovery facilities (MRFs) which sort, wash, scan, separate and process recyclable plastic into raw plastic, ready to be made into say a new plastic cup again. These MRFs are operating in Europe (like this example of milk bottle recycling) and USA and even in China but not in HK. So plastic in HK gets squashed into bales and shipped out of HK for processing in other countries.

A big challenge for recyclers globally is separating out plant based plastic from oil based plastic as they are not compatible in the recycling process. Oh and those plant based and compostable plastics, which might sound better for the environment, are not necessarily better as compostable plastics as they are mainly disposed of in an anaerobic system in landfills, where compostable materials do not decompose.

So as we all head along to private or public events let’s rethink what personal action we can take to reduce plastic waste, and also look for suggestions to share with event organisers so together we can make a difference, as we can’t only rely on the Hong Kong Government to solve our waste issue.

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