Christmas is a great occasion to end the year by spending time with our loved ones. As a time of giving, we also look forward to exchanging presents. For the same reason, unbelievable quantities of plastic waste are generated every year. However, Hongkongers’ spending sprees during Christmas alone cannot account for the city’s wastefulness throughout the year. The Hong Kong consumerism culture that is at the heart of the city’s ongoing plastic pollution problem. Two important questions will be asked here. Firstly, how can Hongkongers avoid generating excess amounts of plastic waste from buying gifts during Christmas? More importantly, how can business, consumers and the government work together to create a circular economy where plastics can be processed in ways that do not harm the environment?

“It’s The Most Wasteful Time of the Year”

As the song goes, “it’s the most wonderful time of the year.” With Christmas just around the corner, we’re all already thinking about how we are going to prepare for the most joyful festival of the year.

Christmas is also a time of giving; as the hectic year comes to an end, it’s the ideal time to reward ourselves and those around us whom we love with presents.

Unfortunately, Christmas is also one of the most wasteful times of the year. According to a study, global waste levels increase by around 30% during Christmas periods. While figures may vary with country depending on how important they view the holiday, Hong Kong definitely has one of the world’s most festive and grand Christmas celebrations.

One need not think too hard to know how wasteful Christmas can be in Hong Kong. People have long criticised yearly Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations for the abysmal amounts of waste that they create as a result of excess packaging of mooncakes and the enormous interest in single-use glow sticks. While Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations may last for days, the Christmas season lasts for weeks, even months.  As a result, it is not surprising to see how much waste we generate during Christmas, as festive lights and decorations are sent directly to landfills while artificial Christmas trees are dumped on the side of streets. According to an estimation by Green Power, 5 tonnes of waste were once collected on Christmas Eve in Tsim Sha Tsui alone, which occupies less than 0.1% of Hong Kong’s landmass. What’s more, Christmas isn’t even the biggest festival in Hong Kong – there’s Chinese New Year.

Nobody wants to be a killjoy during Christmas; to bring up an existential discussion about Hong Kong’s plastic waste problem out of nowhere is no fun. But since there is still some time until official celebrations begin, it’s better to be a party pooper now than later.

The Plastic Waste Problem is a Cultural Problem

While these “extravagant” Christmas numbers are expected, even without any particular celebratory occasion Hongkongers are lavish spenders in general. According to a study in 2017, Hong Kong consumerism and spending habits are among the unhealthiest in the world. Even though the pandemic has led to a slight drop in consumption in Hong Kong, the city has already “resiliently” bounced back, as Hongkongers have also turned to online retail. As executive director of the Hong Kong-APEC Trade Policy Study Group David Dodwell rightly points out, Hongkongers are without exaggeration deserving of the label “shopaholics”.

For this reason, Hongkongers have also been big wasters. It is therefore no surprise that Hong Kong’s landfills grow so rapidly. According to the Environmental Protection Department, more than 10 thousand tonnes of waste are dumped every day, which equates to around 1.5 kg per person. Of which, around 20% is plastic waste, and a huge proportion is unrecyclable. Because of the pandemic, these figures have continued to grow at exponential rates, as citizens have increasingly relied on food takeaway options, which often involve using plastic boxes and cutlery. Hong Kong’s move toward online retail also worsens the problem, as products purchased online are often over-packaged in plastic.

The Dangers of Hong Kong Consumerism 

As we have seen, Hong Kong’s unbelievable waste levels are a consequence of our insatiable desires to buy more and more. However, the wasteful impacts of Hong Kong consumerism go a long way.

When in landfills, plastics release toxic chemicals and gases into the air. This can dramatically affect local biodiversity, especially when landfill sites in Hong Kong are primarily situated in the countryside. When plastic waste enters the ocean, habitats may be destroyed and ocean animals also die from eating or being entangled in plastic waste. Therefore unsurprisingly, Hong Kong has missed the United Nations’ biodiversity targets by a lot.

Humans can also be affected, even if they are nowhere near locations with concentrated amounts of plastic waste. Exposure to the gases released from plastics can cause respiratory problems such as asthma, as a study in Hong Kong finds. In daily life, when the plastic containers we use are exposed to high temperatures (such as during Hong Kong’s increasingly hot summers), particles can leach into our foods and drinks; if they enter our body, they can be very damaging. Consequences range from hormonal disruption to developmental delays and even cancer.

But if the environmental and physical health arguments against irresponsible and wasteful consumption aren’t enough, consider the mental health arguments. As many studies have found, materialistic tendencies are significantly linked to decreased life satisfaction, happiness and quality of relationships. While gifts can certainly make us and our loved ones happier, an unhealthy focus on possessions can distract us from the meaningfulness of personal relationships. In wanting more, we can never be satisfied with what we already have. This has been found to lead to depression, anxiety and other mental health problems.

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Rethinking Gifts in An Age of Consumerism

How can we celebrate Christmas without generating excessive amounts of plastic waste? There are plenty of resources out there that offer useful eco-friendly strategies for celebrating Christmas and choosing greener gifts in Hong Kong. They show that spending on gifts on our loved ones and protecting the environment need not be a zero-sum game. 

But these strategies may not do much to combat plastic waste pollution if Hong Kong consumerism and our exorbitant lifestyles remain the same – this only results in what some have referred to as “green materialism”. What we need is a fundamental re-examination of our consumption habits.

It is therefore important that we rethink the meaning of gifts. Key to this is a recognition that human desires are never ending and can never be fully satisfied. If giving was done purely out of gratification, we would find ourselves giving all the time; not only would we run out of money, gifts would also lose their meaning and value. To reclaim the meaning of gifts, we should instead focus on making every gift memorable and precious. We give gifts not just because they are demanded, but because we want our receivers to feel our special love and care.

This is why giving should not be a routine but a wonder. We may hence find ourselves giving less; not because we are selfish, but because we take whom we give seriously: they are not “errands” to be run, but relationships that we treasure.

Giving less is also a simple way to show our love and care to the environment. As evidence shows, buying less has significantly more positive environmental implications than “green buying”, with the major reason being that it reduces one’s footprint and waste more effectively. The broader implication is that not only should we give less, but we should buy less in general. This does not mean we should not stop giving; it means that we should be more mindful of the consequences of our own purchases.

At the same time, consuming less encourages us to consume better quality things that last longer. And when we get better quality experiences out of our purchases, we will also feel happier. Given Hong Kong’s well-known lavish spending habits, a slight reduction in Hongkongers’ existing levels of consumption will far from become a “repression” of individual desires.

As there is still some time until Christmas, let’s start rethinking about the purpose of giving. What gifts should we get? Where best can we get them? How much should we get?

Consumers are Not the Only Ones to Blame

It is encouraging to see Hongkongers being increasingly aware of the consequences of their purchases on the environment; consumers’ preferences are increasingly shaped by environmental concerns. Many now prefer sustainable brands and often show distaste in the fact that their purchases are too often heavily coated in single-use plastic packaging. This is a trend that is even more apparent in Asian countries.

But this demand shift in mentality has not forced producers to look for better alternatives. As lead research on marine plastics at the World Wide Fund for Nature in Hong Kong June Wong explains, inertia on the supply side is so prevalent for the very fact that plastic is a significantly cheaper and more convenient option.

This is reinforced by the fact that Hong Kong’s producer responsibility schemes (PRS) are still significantly underdeveloped with regard to plastic waste management: beverage suppliers are the only group required by law to pay for collection and recycling of their plastic bottles, meaning that Hong Kong’s other culprits such as online retail stores continue to run unencumbered. There is little to no incentive for the majority of companies in Hong Kong to be more eco-friendly in their production.

What Do We As a Society Need to Do to Help Reduce Our Plastic pollution?

To tackle Hong Kong consumerism and the plastic waste problem seriously, we should consider how producers, consumers and collectors can collaborate to create a more robust recycling infrastructure for plastics and other kinds of municipal waste. Collectively, they can help create a circular economy where plastic components and products are designed, packaged, consumed and treated in ways that minimise leakage of plastics into the natural environment.

On the production side of things, Hong Kong needs a more comprehensive strategy to regulate and strengthen suppliers’ commitment  to “plastic footprint” reduction. In this regard, the government will need to be way more ambitious with its producer responsibility schemes: by implementing pre-market producer responsibility schemes (PPRS), as they require producers to revamp their business models to consider adequately not only the end-of-life of plastics but also their entire life cycle.

With regard to consumers, the government can consider methods to encourage responsible disposal of plastics after consumption. Some have suggested that Hong Kong look to Norway’s deposit return system (DRS) as an example: a customer deposit is required when they buy an item packaged in a single-use plastic container; they can only receive the deposit when the container is returned. This way customers may be incentivised to recycle or think twice before buying an item.

Consumers also have active roles to play: strong awareness can pressurise producers to use less plastics in their manufacturing processes. In many places, public pressure has indeed forced companies to ditch plastics; it’s about time Hongkongers do the same.

These initiatives, however, depend crucially on collection: if recyclable plastics are not collected properly – which has been the case in Hong Kong – then all the aforementioned efforts will go to waste. In Hong Kong, this needs to be taken seriously. Firstly, Hongkongers’ “plastic literacy” requires drastic improvements: what kinds of plastics can be recycled in Hong Kong? How should we clean or sort different types of plastics so that they won’t just end up in the landfill? In turn, Hongkongers may also become more conscious consumers to consider other important questions; for example, what products or brands might enhance the recovery rate of plastics? 

Consequently, accessibility to recycling points also needs to improve. This involves increasing the number of collection points in Hong Kong, as well as improving access to information about their locations and purposes. How many people in Hong Kong actually know about the government’s “Reverse Vending Machines” today?

Altogether, the solution to Hong Kong consumerism and “monumental” waste problem is not to turn away from plastic – as plastic does have its environmental benefits. Instead, the solution to Hong Kong’s plastic pollution is to be more attentive to the consequences when plastics are being involved.

Together, we can make Hong Kong a plastic smart city. Of course everybody wants Christmas to be enjoyable – but we don’t want Christmas to be the only season to be jolly! Since we still have a bit of time, let us think about how we can prepare for a more eco-friendly Christmas.