The aim of the Hello Hong Kong campaign is to welcome visitors from all around the world with open arms and open doors.
But marine refuse in the immediate vicinity of Hong Kong’s coastline and territorial waters are repellent eyesores that may dissuade intended visitors from adding Hong Kong’s famous marine parks and beautiful beaches to their itineraries. Although marine parks are well-preserved, many intended visitors may still be turned off by the marine refuse that is seen everywhere on Hong Kong’s coastlines and territorial waters.
Marine refuse refers to any solid waste, discarded or lost material, resulting from human activities, that has entered Hong Kong’s marine environment irrespective of their sources (Environmental Protection Department, Investigation on the Sources and Fates of Marine Refuse in Hong Kong, April 2015, p 1). According to the Ocean Park Conservation Foundation, nearly 95 percent of marine refuse found in Hong Kong came from local sources, with 60 to 80 percent made up of plastic waste. Plastic waste enters the coastal zones and oceans through rivers, water drainage, sewage and transport by wind or tides. Most worrying is the fact that Hong Kong has become a casualty of microplastic pollution. Microplastics are harmful to marine organisms because they block the digestive systems of these organisms. Microplastics may also collect other pollutants in the water.
To reduce marine refuse, we must expand our law-enforcement lens to place the problem of marine littering into a broader perspective. The broad approach includes: using green technology to reduce the amount of refuse at the source and clear the marine environment of plastic waste; promoting the use of bio-based plastics and biodegradable plastics; banning the use of single-use plastics; and organizing more educational activities for students and the general public. Relying mainly on law enforcement agencies and refuse collectors (contractors or volunteers) cannot ensure that resources are properly channeled to the root of the problem.
The great efforts made by NGOs and volunteers in cleaning the coastline and territorial waters of Hong Kong have not escaped our attention. … Nevertheless, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government should not remain an onlooker. We should not allow the traditional laissez-faire approach to be embedded in Hong Kong’s marine governance fabric.
Marine littering control is enforced by the Marine Department, the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, the Agricultural, Fisheries and Conservation Department, and the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department. For example, the Marine Department’s Harbour Petrol Section enforces marine legislation in various districts. The Pollution Control Unit performs daily patrols in Hong Kong’s waters to inspect the cleanliness of various zones, monitors the performance of contractors according to the cleanliness index, and conducts enforcement actions against littering and other, more-serious offenses.
But common sense tells us that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to enforce the law against offenders in the vast territorial waters of Hong Kong. Anton Cooray reminds us that an important feature of Hong Kong’s environmental governance is the absence of a specialized environmental litigation system, Hong Kong does not have a dedicated environmental court, and all criminal cases relating to the environment are litigated in ordinary criminal courts (Anton Cooray, Environmental Law in Hong Kong (The Netherlands: Kluwer Law International, 2018), p 42). Concerning punishment, some suggest that the fines for public cleanliness offenses under the Fixed Penalty (Public Cleanliness Offences) Ordinance should be increased from HK$1,500 ($191) to HK$3,000.
The great efforts made by NGOs and volunteers in cleaning the coastline and territorial waters of Hong Kong have not escaped our attention. For instance, the Trashwave Initiative deserves credit for removing underwater litter and monitoring local ecosystems. Constrained by space, we cannot list all the ocean angels in this article. We are immensely grateful to these unsung heroes who are ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Nevertheless, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government should not remain an onlooker. We should not allow the traditional laissez-faire approach to be embedded in Hong Kong’s marine governance fabric.
In addition to raising the fees for plastic bags at retail outlets, the government should not overlook the increasingly important role played by green technology in reducing plastic waste. Recently, the public eye has been drawn closer to the use of artificial intelligence to reduce waste. AI and data science are becoming essential tools in the processing of recycled plastic. UK-based Topolytics uses big data to map the movement of plastics, while Lebanon-based Diwama uses AI-assisted imaging in waste-sorting.
Locally, Clearbot deserves credit for using a semi-submersible rubbish scooper to help clear the ocean of plastic waste. It was named one of Asia’s sustainability leaders of the year on the A-list 2022 by Eco-business. The government should also encourage startups to do more research on bio-based plastics and biodegradable plastics because traditional plastics may take hundreds of years to degrade. Technological cooperation with major universities in the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area and some Association of Southeast Asian Nations states can sharpen our competitive edge in treating plastic waste. Another suggestion is to ban the use of single-use plastics by stages. Unnecessary and excessive packaging of consumer products should also be banned.
Education is the long-term solution to the problem of marine littering. Perhaps the Marine Department can collaborate with NGOs and local schools to organize more educational and promotional activities to raise awareness of the pressing need to reduce marine refuse in our coastlines and territorial waters. With regard to NGOs, the Ocean Park Conservation Foundation has played an active role in raising awareness of the threat posed by marine littering. We should also reflect on our throwaway culture.
The problem of marine refuse has deteriorated since the outbreak of COVID-19, as residents rely more on single-use cutleries and masks (Trevor Tong, Trash Talk: A Marine Debris Exhibition in Hong Kong, in The China Project, Aug 11, 2022). To protect our marine environment and attract more visitors, we should take a broad approach to make our coastlines and territorial waters clean. It is time to act, and to act fast.
Junius Ho is a Legislative Council member and a solicitor.
Kacee Ting Wong is a barrister, part-time researcher of the Shenzhen University Hong Kong and Macao Basic Law Research Center, and chairman of the Chinese Dream Think Tank.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.