Hong Kong restaurants grapple with impending ban on plastic, with some saying it costs too much to go green

Restaurants will be banned from offering customers styrofoam products and disposable plastic straws, stirrers, cutlery or plates for dine-in and takeaway services in the first phase.

Restaurant staff using soon-to-be-banned single-use plastic lunchboxes to pack takeaway food. Photo: Jelly Tse

They will also not be allowed to provide single-use cups, cup lids or food containers to dine-in customers. Those products will also be barred for takeaway services in the second phase sometime next year.

A dozen small and medium-sized restaurants around Hong Kong interviewed by the Post said they had yet to order eco-friendly products.

Andrew Chui Shek-on said he has spent the last few weeks polling regular customers of his Tai Ping Koon chain of restaurants, asking how much more they were willing to pay for takeaways.

The fifth-generation owner of the well-known chain with four outlets said he had stopped ordering plastic utensils, but had yet to settle on alternatives.

Chui, 60, said eco-friendly utensils cost about 40 to 60 per cent more than plastic, and the quality could fluctuate widely. He said he spent more than a week testing paper straws to see which would last longer than 15 minutes.

His restaurants handle up to 15,000 takeaway orders a day, and he admitted he was worried that he would have little choice but to pass cost increases on to his customers.

“This is a huge expense for us,” he said. “We still don’t know how many people will be willing to pay extra for it.”

Chan wai-yip, an employee at The Red Hot Chili Burrow in Sai Ying Pun, said it was estimated the ban would increase operating costs by at least 10 to 20 per cent.

He said the restaurant, which serves Sichuan cuisine, would have to raise prices, but feared that would lead to a drop in orders, particularly online.

Chan, 64, added that the policy itself was “too ambiguous to follow”.

What you need to know about Hong Kong’s coming ban on single-use plastics

He said the restaurant had got a letter from the government about the new regulations, but it was “lengthy and written in an official style”, and difficult to understand.

“We can’t contact our supplier for the switch to environmentally friendly utensils now as we are not clear about the specific disposable plastic utensils that are prohibited,” he said.

Lawmakers and industry experts last month said authorities had not done enough to educate the public and retailers about the ban after earlier confusion over a separate, now-delayed, waste-charging scheme.

Secretary for Environment and Ecology Tse Chin-wan wrote in a blog post earlier this month that the plastic ban took into consideration the “actual situation” in Hong Kong, including whether there were “sufficient alternatives on the market”.

He said the government had started a website with information on the rules and a list of 45 local, mainland Chinese and international suppliers of eco-friendly products.

Tse added that, from his bureau’s observations, many eco-friendly alternatives for forks, straws and stirrers were priced “not that differently” from plastic versions, with prices fluctuating by as little as five HK cents per unit.

But a Post check found most suppliers on the government list did not show prices on their websites. One city wholesaler of plastic and eco-friendly utensils had a twofold difference in price.

A pack of 100 plastic forks cost HK$12, but its cheapest eco-friendly, wooden alternative was HK$30 for the same quantity.

Another city supplier that sold only eco-friendly products had forks made of corn-starch at a higher per-unit price, with a pack of 1,000 priced at about HK$350.

Similar price differences were also found with other products under the first phase of the ban, including spoons and straws.

‘Hong Kong public, firms lack education on coming ban on single-use plastics’

The Environmental Protection Department said it had conducted a “comprehensive price survey” of city and mainland suppliers and found that the price between products was “not largely different.”

It added that it had visited more than 20,000 small and medium-sized operators to teach them about the new rules and help them with compliance.

The department said that “with the good availability and affordability of alternatives”, the industry should be able to adapt to the change.

Simon Wong Ka-wo, president of the Hong Kong Federation of Restaurants and Related Trades, said small and medium-sized restaurants would be more affected by the ban at first than larger chains.

He thought prices for eco-friendly products were relatively higher because wholesalers had yet to amass enough orders from restaurants.

Wong predicted that prices would start to fall once the ban kicked in and demand rose. Having more mainland-based companies among the suppliers would help drive down costs, he said.

The environmental incentives were enough to start making the change for some small restaurants.

Wong Shing, 45, co-owner of Abba Delicacy in Sheung Wan, said the outlet had already decided to stop using plastic spoons for noodle dishes, and would switch from plastic bowls to paper ones once the remaining synthetic stock was used up.

“Although the transition away from plastic has an impact on us, it is an inevitable and necessary change because plastic is not environmentally friendly,” he said.

“Many other places have already made this switch, and Hong Kong is relatively late in doing so.”


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