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What does Plastic Free Seas do to help the ocean?

Plastic Free Seas’ main focus is education; teaching students about the problems of plastic pollution locally and globally and empowering them to help find solutions. We work in schools giving talks and workshops, and take students to the beach for cleanups so they can see the problem firsthand.

Our community beach cleanup program is very popular for individuals, families and school students and we use this as an opportunity to not only clean the beach but to educate about the issue too.

We also work with corporates and the government to educate and push for change.

Why does this issue matter to Plastic Free Seas?

Plastic pollution is a global threat to our oceans with estimates of millions of tonnes entering the waters each year, and plastic has contaminated everywhere, from the Arctic to the Antarctic, from the surface of the ocean to the deepest point, the Mariana Trench.

We know it has caused the death of too many marine animals to count, including whales, turtles, birds and fish and has had an impact on habitats such as killing coral and creating dead zones in the coastal marine areas. The plastic is also a mode of transport enabling invasive species to travel to parts of the ocean and the world they wouldn’t normally reach.

We also know that the solutions for this global problem start with local action which is why Plastic Free Seas focuses on education to teach people about this problem, and how everyone can make a difference with the actions they take.

How do I get rid of plastic waste in my school?

Start by determining what the problem plastics are. Are single-use plastic water bottles sold at the canteen or in vending machines around the school, even though there is tap water freely available? Is there disposable cutlery in the canteen or is food served in throwaway plastic containers? Are students bringing a lot of single-use packaging to school to carry their lunch and snacks?

The focus of your campaign will depend on the plastic problem. Will it need to be aimed at students? Do you need to work with the school food service provider to tackle the problem? Do you have a school green group that you could work with to make change happen? You may need to engage all stakeholders – students, teachers and the food service provider – to work out a good plan.

What can I do to make a difference?

We all need to use less plastic. 65% of the rubbish we collected during one of our beach cleanup was plastic food and beverage packaging. If we all try to reduce or eliminate these single-use plastics then we will make a massive reduction in the amount of plastics thrown away each day in Hong Kong.

Always choose reusable options over disposable and never use recycling as an excuse for buying something in plastic.  

Click here to read more ideas on how you can reduce plastic pollution.

Once described as the most important invention of the modern world, why has plastic become such a problem?

The problem with plastic is it is everywhere. It’s in the oceans, in our soil, in the air we breathe, in the food we eat and in the water we drink. Only a small fraction of plastic is recycled, the rest is incinerated, buried in landfills or escapes into the environment. Plastic is constantly imposed upon us and it is difficult to avoid it. Unless our consumption-based lifestyles and current systems of business change radically it is only going to get worse.

What are a few things I can do today to reduce my plastic footprint?

To figure out what your plastic footprint is, start with a Plastic Footprint Investigation. Keep all of the plastic you use in one week. You can then see what your plastic footprint is and consider how you can make changes to reduce it.

We sometimes talk about having three ‘new’ Rs: Refuse, Refuse, Refuse. By saying no to disposable plastic you will be well on your way to reducing your plastic footprint.

There are some easy alternatives you can choose to use instead of disposables: reusable bottle for hot and cold drinks, reusable cutlery and straw or refuse a straw altogether, a reusable small bag that can be kept in your school bag for times when you buy unexpected things, a reusable lunchbox, such as a pop-up silicone one that takes up very little room in your bag. You can purchase unpackaged fruit, ice cream in a cone instead of a cup and put your bakery pastries in a napkin rather than a plastic bag.

What is Plastic Free Seas' opinion on plastic in HK and how it is affecting the environment?

Hong Kong has a significant amount of plastic polluting the sea, coastlines, beaches and land. Plastic breaks down into smaller pieces called microplastics and ends up in the food chain in the fisheries in Hong Kong water. We have also witnessed significant amounts of larger pieces of plastic having bite marks on it from fish. Turtles have been found in HK with plastic in their stomachs as well.

Plastic also impacts marine habitats such as wetlands and mudflats which are breeding, feeding and nesting grounds for many birds, amphibians and reptiles, crabs, fish and insects.

What are three surprising facts about plastic usage?
  1. Hong Kong uses approximately 5 million plastic drink bottles per day!
  2. 39% of all plastic made is used for packaging.
  3. Bar soap is as effective as liquid soap but has less or no packaging. Pump dispensers are extremely difficult to recycle because of the number of types of plastic used as well as the metal spring.
Has Plastic Free Seas been successful in their work to combat this issue?

Since 2013, Plastic Free Seas has worked with over 300 schools and taught more than 110,000 students about this issue and the solutions. We have seen dozens of fantastic student activists take lead and have big positive impacts. Our campaign to stop microbeads was long but very successful. The government took action by introducing legislation to stop microbeads being used in personal care products. We have also been involved with the Drink Without Waste initiative which will see legislation implemented on drink containers to ensure they get recycled. Our continued drive for all events to use reusable containers has seen success.

Over the years we have seen a huge change of attitude from the government to acknowledge plastic pollution as a real problem and put resources towards reducing it, but at times it has been very slow or seemed like it was not enough. We would like to see stronger policies for limiting plastic use and fines and penalties imposed on people who break the existing laws on littering and dumping.

Why is plastic recycling so challenging in Hong Kong?

There is a huge amount of plastic waste created in Hong Kong, but a lot of it is dirty and therefore ends up going to landfill as the recycling system cannot handle dirty plastic. Many types of plastic packaging, such as films and lightweight bags, are low value plastic to begin with. The costs are high for collection, sorting, storage and transport.

Living space is small so it isn’t easy for people to keep their waste and recyclables separate and not all buildings offer recycling so it might not be convenient. Plastic waste is lightweight yet takes up a lot of space. The different types of plastic makes it hard for the public to know what to recycle and where.

Given that there is barely any manufacturing in Hong Kong, there is no local demand for recycled plastic, which means that everything is exported and there is no incentive for the government to encourage recycling.

There is also a lack of trust in the system. Some people feel that the system is ‘broken’, that the materials in the recycling bins don’t actually get recycled. Therefore, fewer people recycle and there is less care taken to use the separation bins properly.

How can we tackle this problem of recycling?

Refund levies on drink containers is a great way to encourage more people to recycle. Banning products that are commonly contaminated after use and hard to recycle such as foamed food containers, plastic cutlery, straws, as well as thin film plastic such as lightweight bags and other lower value plastic packaging is also a good way to reduce the problem.

Businesses should incentivise people to bring their own containers for food and drink with rebates, or charge for disposables. The government could subsidise businesses that rely heavily on foam containers to transition to another material which is easier to recycle or even better, a reusable container model so they can stop creating waste in the first place.

Government support for recycling infrastructure is required. /recycling-in-hong-kong/, particularly some types of plastic, is not always attractive to investors as a profit-making business. If the government is paying for waste management, they should also be contributing to keeping recyclable waste out of the landfills, and ensuring that these resources get recycled.

How does plastic end up in our oceans?

There are numerous ways that plastic ends up in our oceans:

* Any plastic or debris that gets into a river or creek (watersheds) will end up in the ocean.
* Storm drains are there to divert rainwater from the roadways. Storm drains eventually lead to the sea so if debris gets into the storm drain it will also end up in the ocean.
* Strong weather events like wind and storms can lead to rubbish being blown out of rubbish bins, off the ground and into the ocean.
* People may dump rubbish intentionally (littering or large scale dumping) on coastal areas or directly out to the ocean.
* Improperly managed landfills built along the coast will over time become eroded and storm surges may wash the rubbish into the ocean. This is not an issue in Hong Kong but may happen in surrounding countries.
* Sea-based activities such as fishing vessels, pleasure boats or cargo ships can all contribute rubbish and plastic in to the ocean. Fishing activities using nets and foamed fishing buoys are known contributors to marine pollution.

What actions can people take against marine pollution?

Use less plastic for everyday living. Refuse unnecessary single-use plastic items such as straws, cutlery and overly wrapped food and drink, and think twice before buying plastic toys and poor quality products. Set an example by using reusable items such as drink bottles, containers for takeaway food and drink and shopping bags, and influence your family, friends and community.

Report dumping or littering. In Hong Kong you can use the hotline 1823 to contact 23 government departments by phone, app, SMS to 6163 1823, email [email protected] or write to PO Box 1823, Tsuen Wan Post Office.

Teaching others not to litter and setting a good example for others to follow by picking up litter is a positive action you can take.

Another effective action to take is to encourage businesses to change their packaging and operational practices to non-polluting alternatives by writing letters or communicating to them on social media, as well as pushing for government legislation. Some examples of what you can do are: encourage restaurants to take on a ‘straws on request’ policy, ask restaurants to accept BYO containers instead of forcing customers to use disposable containers, ask cafes to to discourage customers from using disposable cups while sitting in their cafes, request water bottle refill stations to reduce the use of single-use bottles.

Of course beach, trail or street cleanups are a great way to make a difference and provide and opportunity to encourage others to be involved too. Remember, rubbish on the land may easily end up as rubbish in the ocean.

What might happen if we don’t stop marine pollution?

There is a direct correlation between the amount of single-use plastic used and the amount of plastic marine pollution. All marine habitats and species will be impacted. There are already identifiable pieces of plastic found in remote locations such as the Mariana Trench – the deepest point in the ocean – and the Arctic. Soon, there will be very few unpolluted places for us to enjoy and for marine life to thrive. We will witness even more of the negative effects, such as whale strandings, with animals and fish dying as a result of entanglement or ingesting plastic.

Do you think the plastic problem lies in the consumers’ awareness, or attitudes and behaviours?

Instead of looking towards the customers, we should be addressing the root of the problem which lies with corporate practices. Decisions made in boardrooms have a much bigger potential impact than the choices that individuals make. A company’s decision to change how they package their products can have a huge impact on addressing this global problem.

Many of the companies producing much of the world’s plastic packaging are big multinational brands, often churning out millions of products per day.  Pushing companies to change their use of plastic packaging will have a far greater impact than encouraging consumers to recycle or to choose products with less or no plastic packaging when often there is little choice for the consumer.

Do you think corporations are taking enough action against the use of single-use plastics?

Some corporations are taking actions to minimise the amount of single-use plastic waste they create. An example is the discount given by coffee shops to customers bringing their own coffee cups. Another example is that over the years, beverage manufacturers have reduced the amount of plastic used in each bottle, a practice known as light weighting. This saves them money and also reduces the overall amount of plastic waste created.

But more action needs to be taken to eliminate plastic packaging while still delivering a product. There needs to be a focus on alternative delivery models such as enabling customers to use their own containers to refill food and beverage items at the grocery store. If companies had to pay for the amount of waste they created due to the packaging needed to sell their products instead of passing on that cost to the consumer, we would see a lot more action to reduce the amount of single-use plastics being used.

Is there a way to make sure that people don't use too much plastic?

Some cities and countries have introduced legislation to reduce plastic. This could be in the form of bans on particular products, or as a levy or a tax. In Hong Kong for example there is legislation on Plastic Shopping Bags in the form of a 50c levy, charged to the consumer.

How does plastic pollute?
Plastic does not breakdown in any reasonable time frame and due to plastic being lightweight it can easily pollute the environment. Chemicals that are manufactured into plastic can also leach out into the surrounding environment. When exposed to the sun and mechanical forces such as waves, plastic can become brittle and break up into many thousands of pieces. Microplastic can be found all over the planet: in the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water and beverages we drink and throughout the water column from the sea surface to the deepest trenches.
Which country uses the most plastic?
The problem is not so much which country uses the most but the fact that many countries don’t manage their own waste and ship it off to other countries for end-of-life disposal. The global waste trade is often not fair or responsible. Many wealthier countries ship their waste plastic (and other materials) to poorer countries to ‘recycle’. This often leads to massive amounts of unmanaged waste polluting waterways, villages and fields or being burnt in highly polluting factories or open fires. Individuals profit over importing this often low-value scrap and mixed plastic through the recycling trade but entire communities suffer the consequences.
What is the best alternative material to use instead of plastic for packaging?

The best alternative to plastic packaging is no packaging. When looking at an alternative material to plastic, the life cycle of each material needs to be assessed, including the collection and recycling facilities that are available locally. For example, if a city has an industrial composting facility that can handle compostable plastic products, and there is a good system for separation and collection of compostable plastic, this might be an ideal solution for food packaging within that city. But if the system for collection is poor or there are no specialised facilities to handle this type of material, then compostable plastic is definitely not a viable solution in that location. Some alternatives to fossil fuel-based plastic are glass, metal, paper, so-called ‘biodegradable’ plastics and plastic made from non fossil fuel-based sources.

For some products there is no need for packaging at all. They can be transported and sold via bulk packaging, and the consumers can use their own containers. Some products can be sold in reusable containers such as glass bottles for beverages which can be collected, washed and refilled by the producer. Examples of this are soda and milk, both of which can be found in small bottles around Hong Kong. Note that glass packaging becomes less environmentally friendly when it is transported over long distances due to the energy it take to carry the heavier weight.

Using bar soap instead of liquid pump dispensers is another way to switch packaging resources and still end up with the same outcome – clean hands.

What is plastic most frequently used for?
About 39% of the plastic produced is used for single-use plastic packaging. Most of this will be used once and for a short period of time. To understand how big a problem this has become, we only need to look at the timeline of global plastic production.  In 1961, global production of plastic was at 8 million tonnes. In 1987 it was 100 million tonnes and in 2022 it reached 400 million tonnes. According to estimates, it will double again over the next 20 years.

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