Although the pandemic has brought some positive environmental impacts, such as reduced air and noise pollution, it has also aggravated other issues like waste.
There is a significant increase in biomedical waste (masks, gloves and other COVID-related items) and plastic waste due to the pandemic. One article published by the US National Academy of Science (PNAS) estimates more than 8 million tons of pandemic-associated plastic waste to have been generated globally, while the WHO estimates an addition of 731,000 liters of chemical waste to have been disposed of.
PNAS further estimates that more than 25,000 tons of the plastic waste generated have entered our oceans. The detrimental impact that COVID has had on our environment poses further challenges for the future, especially regarding landfill space and the marine environment.
In tackling this issue on a local level, the zero-waste movement has been stepping up. The zero-waste movement faces this challenge by encouraging change in our daily consumption habits – reducing waste as much as possible while also finding alternative ways to dispose of waste that is created. Small changes to our daily habits may seem insignificant in the big picture, but these all add up and contribute to a larger shift in consumer waste.
In Hong Kong, Sustainabl. has been reinforcing the need to build a circular economy, where minimal waste is produced by reusing and repurposing the products we use – packaging, in particular. Sustainabl. offers responsibly sourced, plastic-free, home compostable and recyclable products.
TMS spoke with Jayme Ellis, the marketing manager for Sustainabl. to learn more about how it aims to change Hong Kong for the better, environmentally.
Why we need sustainable products
On the bigger scale, although Asia’s waste reputation is not particularly severe, it is clear that Hong Kong is late to the race in being sustainable. It’s hard to fathom, but Ellis gives one example for clarification – South Korea has half the microplastic concentration that Hong Kong beaches have. Most of Hong Kong still doesn’t follow a circular economy but a linear economy instead.
“So, for that, we take raw materials, and we process them into products and then they’re just thrown away. So it’s a very much a throwaway economy,” explains Ellis. “In a circular economy, we keep waste to a minimum by increasing the lifecycle of that raw material by repurposing them.”
Many companies in Hong Kong brand themselves as eco-friendly yet use biooplastic or plant-based packaging. Despite sounding better for the environment and being seemingly recyclable or compostable to the eye – the reality is that it isn’t.
“One of our biggest pet peeves is companies that label themselves as green and eco in Hong Kong and use bioplastic or plant-based packaging,” says Ellis. “So you might get a plastic cup if you’re at the pub or they serve it to you on the street and it says compostable on it … In Hong Kong, it’s not compostable and actually if you throw it into the recycling to be recycled, it will contaminate that recycling. So bioplastic is a huge problem in Hong Kong.”
Hong Kong has recognized the gravity of the issue of waste over the past few years and has set out various waste initiatives, from an increased number of campaigns promoting recycling to the curation of a Waste Blueprint for Hong Kong 2035. Hong Kong is also planning on tackling disposable plastic tableware with a campaign dated to start phase one in 2025. However, Ellis asserts that this is too late.
“We think that is way too late. There’s a plastic epidemic happening globally. You know, we need these regulations to [happen] sooner.”
With global recognition of environmental issues, there is some hope for change in the near future. The UN environment assembly recently had members from nearly 200 countries sign a resolution ensuring regulations tighten so that the current plastic pollution issue doesn’t worsen. Inger Andersen, executive director of the UN Environment Programme, called it “the most significant environmental multilateral deal since the Paris Accord.” It’s an ambitious start in light of a needed change in our world.
“We really need to just close the chapter on where we are right now with plastic,” says Ellis.
How Sustainabl. can help you and our Earth
It all started with a grass straw that Sustainabl. founder Richard Oliver came across in Ho Chi Minh City of Vietnam. Sipping on a kale smoothie using a grass straw, a revelation that we needed this type of product in Hong Kong washed over him, and Sustainabl. was born.
Thus, Sustainabl. has worked to produce a plethora of zero-waste packaging options. From customizable food packaging to napkins, cutlery, wine boxes and more, Sustainabl. provides alternative options for individuals, restaurants, bars, hotels and e-commerce vendors to change what everyone uses in Hong Kong.
“Our products, they don’t pollute the oceans or contribute to any global deforestation because our core range is actually made from bagasse pulp, which is a byproduct of the sugarcane and wheat industry. Then, we do have other products made out of FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified paper and bamboo paper,” Ellis says.
One of Sustainabl.’s core materials, bagasse pulp (which they call Refibr.), is a byproduct of the sugarcane and wheat industry. This raw material was essentially “trash” before being repurposed by Sustainabl. Other materials include their FSC certified paper made from responsibly-sourced wood fibers to avoid contributing to deforestation, as well as bamboo, which grows two or three times faster and is a valuable source of nutrition for the soils and ecosystems it grows in.
“For Sustainabl., how we sort of reinforce this circular economy is that all of our products, the whole range, can be home-composted and they can be recycled as paper,” Ellis explains.
“[Also] we’ve been working with our clients and partners to ensure that the packaging can be collected. We’re working on different projects around collection and composting, and alternatively, looking to make sure that they get recycled, so that we can divert them from ending up in landfills or in our oceans.”
Sustainabl. amid the pandemic
As a COVID baby, especially since some of its main partners are restaurants, the pandemic has been no easy obstacle to overcome for the company. Operating in Hong Kong, where lockdowns and curfews have been strict, the situation has been tough on Sustainabl.’s partners. Furthermore, plastic products are cheap and therefore more appealing to struggling businesses. However, with an uptick in delivery and take-out during the pandemic, Sustainabl. has been able to push its sustainable packaging solutions forward.
Recognizing the financial pressure businesses are facing during this time, Sustainabl. launched a new partnership with Deliveroo to help resolve this issue. Deliveroo has invested HK$2 million of funding to subsidize the costs of Sustainabl. packaging for restaurants throughout the city, making it more feasible for both smaller and bigger businesses to ditch plastic. Sustainabl. has also partnered with Pirata and the Hyatt Centric to provide greener, eco-friendly solutions for their businesses.
With the pandemic, delivery and takeaway foods have become a natural and essential part of our daily lives. However, it may be difficult for us to recognize what’s truly eco-friendly. What can be recycled? Is there a certain standard? Thus, Sustainabl. is also working towards finding a “standard” for sustainable takeaway packaging.
As it may be hard to recognize, especially whether particular packaging may be home compostable or not, these partnerships and increasing traction are helping Sustainabl. and our society build a vision of what sustainable takeaway packaging should look like.
What’s next for Sustainabl.?
In addition to these exciting partnerships, Sustainabl. is looking to the future with the goal of educating the public and advocating for more sustainable solutions in our daily lives – from solving misconceptions, like the supposed eco-friendliness of bioplastic or plant-based packaging, to encouraging people to take part in composting projects.
“We really deeply care about making a change, and we see the devastating impacts a single-use plastic has on the environment, and particularly the ocean, so we’re really always searching for new plastic-free and eco-friendly packaging solutions,” says Ellis.
Ellis also provides some tips for us to be more mindful of sustainable packaging in our day-to-day lives.
First off, refusing plastic is key. Using your own tableware, lunchbox and cups is also the way to go – there’s no need to buy more if you already have what you need. Second, which is in line with the first, is to reuse. Also, asking crucial questions about the sources and materials of whatever you use and simply talking with others on the matter raises awareness of the issue and will help our society strive for change.
“My third tip would be just making sure you rinse and wash if you’re going to get Deliveroo and you get something that is our product,” Ellis advocates. “When you finish eating, don’t just throw it in the trash. Take it to the sink, give it a quick rinse, and then put it in the paper recycling bin, and that will be recycled as paper, which means that you’re not adding to landfills.”
Last but not least, try to compost. Sustainabl. will soon be releasing a miniseries on how to compost from home (and avoid the unpleasant smell that can arise) that anyone can follow from home.
With small efforts in our daily lives, we can all create a wave of change to help reduce waste.