Plastic pollution is a global environmental problem. To combat this issue, the United Nations Environment Assembly passed a resolution in March 2022 to develop a draft global agreement on plastic pollution by the end of 2024 (reported here). The third session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee recently concluded in Nairobi, Kenya with the next session scheduled in April 2024 in Ottawa, Canada. Further, in April 2023, the international non-profit organisation, CDP, added plastic-related impacts to its global disclosure platform for companies and governments (reported here).

In Hong Kong, waste plastics continue to make up around 20% of municipal household solid waste disposal. To address growing concerns over the harmful effects of plastic waste on the environment and public health, the Hong Kong government recently passed the Product Eco-responsibility (Amendment) Bill 2023 (the “Bill“) to introduce regulations on disposable plastic tableware and other common plastic products, some of which will be banned from sale or free distribution in the coming year. Consequently, businesses in the food and beverage and hospitality industries will have to adapt their business operations. Hong Kong residents and visitors must also modify their consumption habits accordingly.

The implementation dates of the new regulations on disposable plastic products have not been confirmed. However, a spokesperson for the Environment and Ecology Bureau said the government plans to introduce the first phase of the regulations on 22 April 2024 to coincide with Earth Day. The timing for implementing the second phase is tentatively expected in 2025.

New restrictions on disposable plastic products

Since July 2008, Hong Kong has implemented the Product Eco-responsibility Ordinance (Cap. 603) to introduce measures to minimise the environmental impact of various types of products through producer responsibility schemes (“PRS“) and other schemes based on the “polluter pays” principle. This legislation introduced a plastic bag levy that requires consumers to pay HK$1 for a plastic bag at retail outlets. In addition, the PRS on waste electrical and electronic equipment requires suppliers of certain household electrical appliances (e.g. refrigerators and computers) to pay a recycling levy.

The Bill targets two categories of plastic products: (1) disposable plastic tableware (e.g. straws, cutlery); and (2) other single-use plastic products (e.g. hotel and guest house toiletries, glow sticks and umbrella bags). In banning the manufacturing, sale or free distribution of specific disposable plastic products, the new restrictions seek to reduce the use of new plastic products. This is a more robust approach to cutting plastic waste than the existing approach of imposing levies on the consumption or sale of prescribed goods.

The table below lists the categories of affected disposable plastic products and the scope of the upcoming regulations.

Penalties for non-compliance and enforcement

Failure to comply with the new regulations may result in a penalty notice issued by the Director of Environmental Protection. A penalty notice gives the recipient an opportunity to discharge the liability for the relevant offence by paying a fixed penalty of HK$2,000 within 21 days after the date of the penalty notice. Alternatively, upon conviction, the penalty is a fine not exceeding HK$100,000.

If the Director of Environmental Protection has reason to believe that a person is committing or has committed an offence under the new regulations, the Director may, without a warrant, require a person to produce documents for inspection by its officers, and authorise its officers to search premises that are accessible to the public. Authorised officers may also obtain a warrant issued by a magistrate to exercise more extensive powers of entry and search.

Other miscellaneous updates

The Bill expands the coverage of the PRS on waste electrical and electronic equipment to include larger equipment such as tumble dryers and dehumidifiers. It also introduces miscellaneous amendments such as removing the requirement of providing consumers with recycling labels under the same PRS to streamline operations. These updates will be implemented on 1 July 2024.

Looking ahead

The strengthened Product Eco-responsibility Ordinance will help to level the playing field for environmentally-minded businesses and reduce the prices of more sustainable alternatives made of non-plastic materials (e.g. paper or plant fibre), given the increased demand. Businesses that currently rely on the affected categories of disposable and single-use plastic products in their operations should look out for the commencement dates of the new restrictions, begin exploring alternatives, and modifying related processes ahead of time to ensure future compliance.

Regulations requiring the reduction or replacement of single-use plastics are not unique to Hong Kong. This trend has also been observed in other jurisdictions such as Canada, the EU and Mainland China where restrictions or bans on single-use plastic products have been introduced in recent years. We expect to see additional regulations and PRS enhancements to be introduced in Hong Kong over time as part of the government’s waste management strategy that enshrines the principles of “polluter pays” and “eco-responsibility”.