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STUART GANNON, Commercial Director of Delta Global, looks at the struggle to manage waste in Hong Kong and the consequences of poor supply chains...
It has long been predicted that, by 2020, Hong Kong’s landfills would be entirely full. So, to avoid a waste management catastrophe, policies and legislation were introduced, revised, and eventually discarded. Now, to alleviate the crisis, a new strategy for waste management has been introduced, in the form of the Government of Hong Kong’s Waste Reduction Resources Circulation Zero Landfill. The new strategy focuses on incineration and landfill expansion.
The challenges in Hong Kong, and how they are managed, are important for two reasons: it would be the chance to demonstrate serious, sustainability policies for other governments, and it is unlikely that landfill capacity issues will be consigned solely to Hong Kong.
It appears much of the plan is focused on expanding waste facilities. This is precisely what the Hong Kong government tried previously, promising enough landfill to contain waste by 2020. It did not work, and here we are again, with a new promise of sufficient landfill by 2035. It is neither cynical nor dismissive of short-term needs to consider this plan as worrisome. Given, for example, that the pandemic increased takeout orders by about 50% – resulting in vast increases in plastic and packaging waste – that which was not achievable by 2020 and is not going to be achievable by 2035. Population growth, increased wealth and higher consumerism will not permit it. Neither will the scarcity of land in Hong Kong. And continually expanding landfills in the 4th most densely populated place on the planet isn’t feasible. Promises of more efficient incineration practices and vague notions of working with industry and communities seem disappointingly lacking in defined, explicit actions.
Yet the government of Hong Kong are hardly alone in pursuing environmental short-termism, pushing an immediate problem into the next decades. Unless Hong Kong and wealthy nations commit to implementing rules on sustainable supply chains, we will continually be amid a cycle of promise breaking and setting new promises.
A sustainable supply chain often begins with a MNC (multinational company) who insist on a first-line supplier adhering to the highest sustainable standards. In turn, they ask their suppliers to comply with those standards, and so on. But governments are reluctant to impose immediate, rigorous supply chain rules because of the perceived cost burden on smaller businesses. Smaller businesses are often reluctant to adopt sustainable supply chains themselves for the same reasons.
Beyond this perception is the lack of supply chain access and options available to new and smaller business. The reason we see sustainable supply chains being adopted by the biggest conglomerates (Starbucks, Nike, Unilever) is not because they are more virtuous than smaller businesses and start-ups. It is because they have access to a supply networks beyond the scope of say, a fast-food start-up. Therefore, government regulation is necessary to ensure smaller businesses have access to sustainable products, materials, and packaging. Without that regulation, we are at the mercy of vague and all-to-often empty rhetoric. Governments must understand what those connected to retail have understood for some time – most consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable products. Hesitation to regulate and assist smaller businesses cannot be excused internally by governments afraid to vex business leaders or pursue ideologies that oppose government assistance. The market and the consumer are heading steadfastly towards sustainability.
It is a perplexing situation – on the one hand, we have Larry Fink, CEO of the world’s largest assent management groups, informing companies that stakeholders expect full disclosure of environmental performance, and on the other, government reluctance to assist businesses to move to market preferences – a move that would have a considerable positive economic and environmental impact.
Switching to Sustainable Packaging
If it currently seems impracticable – even impossible – for smaller and new businesses to use an entirely sustainable supply chain, how can they best make a significant step towards that direction? The most impactful change is switching to a sustainable packaging supplier, and one that has multiple manufacturing locations whereby the end product is able to reach end user in a closer proximity, without adding thousands of carbon miles.
A packaging’s eco-credentials is not just in the materials it uses, but also in its extended life in the homes of consumers, or its natural circular or recyclable journey. If recyclable (like all of our FSC accredited boxes) then it is able to avoid landfill and incineration and even be repurposed into new packaging further down the line, if reusable, it can potentially help the product reach the resale market, or alternatively be used for longer as a useful asset to the buyer. We’ve worked with brands such as MATCHESFASHION, Net-a-Porter, Estée Lauder and Tom Ford as part of their journey to a sustainable packaging supply chain. These brands understand that sustainable packaging means a drastic reduction in needless waste.
In 2020, Eurostat issued a report that estimated the total amount of packaging waste in Europe in 2018 was 77.7 million tonnes. That’s more than the ten years previous, despite several EU directives aimed at reducing waste. But like in Hong Kong, none of these directives had a sufficient emphasis on packaging supply chains. The latest waste management strategy from Hong Kong was a chance to exemplify how to tackle visible environmental mismanagement. Instead, it demonstrates that sustainable supply chains remain distant from government policies.