Another Earth Day has come and gone. And with it, so to have a whole bunch of gimmicks ostensibly designed to get people to change the way they live in hopes of improving sustainability, environmental protection, etc. In Hong Kong, one of the gimmicks was an eight-week recycling program that relies on a mobile app to convince people to recycle cosmetic and beauty aid packaging.
It is no secret that the health and beauty industry rely heavily on plastic packaging. Plastics are easy to work with. They can be made into a variety of bottles, tubes, jars etc. Not only that, but plastic packaging is also hygienic. That is important when you are manufacturing health and beauty products.
Hong Kong’s recycling rate for plastic packaging is only 9%. But it is the same everywhere else. Less than 10% of all consumer plastics get recycled. It is not just Hong Kong and its health and beauty aid sector.
The Mobile App Gimmick
As for the mobile app gimmick, it is creative if not original. The app encourages consumers to turn in recyclable packaging from six different cosmetic brands. In exchange for doing so, consumers can receive souvenirs or coupons. The coupons can be redeemed at participating retailers throughout Hong Kong.
Organizers hope to collect 300,000+ recyclable plastic packages during the drive. If they do, they claim they will be able to prevent more than 2 tons of carbon emissions. Let’s say they actually succeed. Great. Fewer plastics in landfills and lower carbon emissions are both good things. But what happens after the drive ends?
In all likelihood, the vast majority of consumers who take the time to recycle plastic packages in exchange for coupons will go right back to what they were doing before. If there is nothing in it for them, recycling is not worth the effort. It is a lot more convenient to just throw empty tubes and bottles in the trash can.
People Need an Incentive
Plastic recycling began in earnest back in the 1970s. By the way, so did paper and glass recycling. Recyclers have successfully recycled countless tons of plastic and paper since then. Not so for plastic. Why? Because plastic recycling requires a lot more work on the consumer’s part. And without incentive, they are not going to do that work.
In order for consumer plastic recycling to be economically viable, consumers need to make the effort to clean, sort, and recycle. Good luck with that. If you buy take-out for lunch in the park with your coworkers, what are the chances you are going to take the plastic containers home, wash them out, and then recycle them? Probably not good.
This is not to say that plastic cannot be recycled. It can be. Seraphim Plastics, based in Tennessee, does it every day. They recycle tons of commercial scrap plastic in seven states. They can do so successfully because their customers clean and sort the plastics before Seraphim picks them up. And why do their customers do that? Because they can sell the plastics to Seraphim. There is the incentive.
Sustainability Isn’t Incentive Enough
Much to the chagrin of sustainability advocates, their pet cause isn’t enough of an incentive to most consumers. We can debate the necessity of sustainability all day long, but when push comes to shove, it is not important to consumers. That is just the reality.
It is a reality that organizers of the Hong Kong plastic recycling effort will be faced with when their program ends in a few weeks. Perhaps they will collect hundreds of thousands of bottles and tubes. But things will go back to normal soon enough.