By Cheung Tsun To, Shum Yu Hin, and Gao Yue
Hong Kong’s waters and shorelines have increasingly become a magnet for plastic wastes which Greenpeace says could underlie health risks and inflict “irreversible harm” to the region’s subtropical marine ecosystem.
The survey by the environment group’s flagship, Rainbow Warrior, counted plastics in Hong Kong’s waters as part of a global project to research marine pollution.
The group said they had found a total of 8,212 plastic pieces ranging from 1.01 to 4.75 millimetres at 18 sites in water away from the coast in the research carried out in January this year, almost 20 times more than what they found in the adjacent East China Sea.
The group determined that there were almost four pieces of plastic per cubic metre of water in the samples taken.
Greenpeace said those levels were worse than other larger territories in the region, including China, Japan and South Korea, according to the data they had found from waters in those countries.
The density of the amount of waste off Hong Kong was the equivalent to finding around 3,600 pieces of plastic debris in an Olympic-size swimming pool, said Bonnie Tang, a Greenpeace campaigner who is responsible for studying the city’s plastic pollution.
Tang said most of the plastic was broken-down fibres and polystyrene from a range of single-use items, including food containers and disposable cutlery.
“The result is shocking, especially when you take the small size of the city into account,” Tang said. “Hong Kong is a hotspot of marine plastic pollution.”
She added that the long-term danger was that toxins from waste would enter the food chain as fish and birds eat the rubbish.
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The data, which is still being analysed by a team of academics for Greenpeace, comes at a time when Hong Kong is struggling to deal with the mountains of waste it produces.
The city’s landfills are reaching the saturation point next year, but there is no mainstream recycling culture.
The semi-autonomous southern Chinese city also lies at the mouth of the highly industrialised Pearl River with the potential for rubbish to wash in from there.
Greenpeace is still studying why Hong Kong’s plastic pollution problem is more severe than other countries.
But Tang attributed the marine plastic pollution to a number of factors, including waste washed down from landfills into the sea, the dumping of rubbish straight into the ocean and marine accidents in international waters nearby.
“The problem is persisting with a tendency to increase,” said Christelle Not, a marine scientist at the University of Hong Kong who specialises in the city’s pollution, who added that the city’s problem was compounded by a lack of plastic recycling and poor waste management.
She also said that the plastic litter in Hong Kong waters were primarily domestic wastes and the input from the Pearl River, especially during summer when monsoon brings rains to southern China.
The HKU oceanographer could observe a plastic boom in the ocean after heavy rain or typhoon presumably transported by the wind and rain from the streets and open landfills.
A journal paper published by Dr Not and her colleagues in June last year identified the Pearl River itself and its tributaries, Xi River and Dong River, were amongst the world’s top 20 polluting rivers.
Lincoln Fok, an environmental scientist at the Education University of Hong Kong, has been researching the city’s microplastic problem.
“Hong Kong has one of the highest mean abundances of microplastic waste in the world,” he claimed.
Last year, Dr Fok and his team found that 60 per cent of the wild flathead grey mullet fish available in local markets contained up to 43 pieces of microplastics inside their bodies.
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Greenpeace is worried that if people keep disposing wastes into the ocean, plastic scraps will pile up along the food chain and thereby undermining public health because toxic substances, such as pesticide and plasticiser, can accumulate on their surfaces.
“It is impossible to scoop the plastics out of the ocean once it’s got there; you don’t need a prophecy to tell the problem will become much more intense three decades later,” Tang added.
Some shops in Hong Kong charge for plastic bags and a few individual businesses have announced they will no longer hand out single-use items such as straws.
Hong Kong Baptist University is also dedicated to eliminating plastics from the campus. Diners have to pay $1 to buy a straw or disposable takeaway box.
Hong Kong generated 15,573 tonnes of waste daily, according to the latest government figures from 2016. About 98 per cent of the rubbish went to landfills.
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While nearby regions, such as Taiwan and India, have been gradually outlawing the use of disposable plastics, Greenpeace grills the Hong Kong government of “lagging behind” and urges a timeline to phase out plastics in the city.
The Environment Bureau replied to our enquiry that it was looking into a proposal to control single-use plastic tableware.
They felt they were “on par with other nearby regions” in tackling marine pollution.
“The Food and Environmental Hygiene Department has been monitoring closely the performance of cleansing contractors and conducting regular inspections as well as surprise checks,” the bureau said in their statement when asked what measures the government had taken to address the increasing issue.
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The investigation team conducted an online survey between December 1 and December 7, receiving 485 responses in total.
There is a slight correlation between the awareness of harm due to microplastics and the consumption of plastic products. The result shows that middle-aged people are more aware of their plastic consumption than younger generations.
Besides, one in three respondents claimed they did not know what microplastics was.
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Hong Kong’s biggest recent pollution scandal came in August last year when its water and beaches became thick with globs of palm oil that came from a 1,000-tonne spillage.
In 2012, 168 tonnes of plastic pallets tipped out from a Chinese cargo ship into the city’s waters during Typhoon Vicente.
Several local and Macanese media also reported some pallets then had spread to beaches in south-eastern Macau.
Images of Hong Kong’s plastic clogged beaches have become more common with volunteer groups periodically trying to clear them.
“More and more actions are taken to limit plastic usage and all these are good but I personally think that they are still too few to start to make a real change,” said Dr Not.
“Hong Kong cannot afford to delay in ridding its shorelines of plastics,” said Tang.