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Thursday, Mar 30, 2023

Plastic can be fantastic for Hong Kong’s innovation and tech hub goals

Plastic can be fantastic for Hong Kong’s innovation and tech hub goals

True innovation is premised on solving problems and Hong Kong’s effective waste management is blinding it to the big commercial opportunities in plastic.
Plastic waste is a unique problem for Hong Kong. It is not about the low recycling rate which, at just 14 per cent, is better than the 9 per cent world average but still far below what we need. It is not the finite capacity of landfills, or the plastic particles we consume in our air, water and seafood.

The problem is that Hong Kong’s plastic waste is kept out of sight and out of mind. Waste management is so effective we hardly think about it. This is not to say that used plastic is collected, sorted and recycled optimally. It certainly is not.

Out of sight may be nice in our daily lives. But out of mind is an obstacle to innovation, which is premised on solving problems. A lack of understanding of global problems, and more perniciously, a lack of interest, is a mindset problem. Solving it requires breaking out of the parochialism that has plagued Hong Kong in recent years.

Domestic challenges like affordable housing, mental health and economic diversification warrant attention and resources. But to become a globally relevant innovation and technology hub, a wider perspective is needed, beyond an emphasis on property development for technology-related facilities and cliched slogans about “inno-everything”.

Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po’s proposal to establish an international green technology finance centre, announced in his 2023-34 budget, can be part of this broader vision, though it should not be too focused on financial engineering schemes like carbon credits.

Practically addressing the scourge of plastic waste offers technology-driven opportunities in each of the four strategic industries outlined by the new Office for Attracting Strategic Enterprises. These are: life and health technology; artificial intelligence and data science; financial technology; and advanced manufacturing and new-energy technology.

For example, in life and health technology, Germany-based Wasser 3.0 is working to remove microplastics from municipal drinking water. In fintech, the Plastic Bank, operating in the Philippines, Indonesia, Brazil and Egypt, has pioneered social plastic credits.

Artificial intelligence 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.

One notable venture from Hong Kong, Clearbot, was inspired by its founder’s visit to Indonesia and desire to help clear the ocean of plastic waste.

Advanced manufacturing is perhaps the most dynamic of the strategic industries for plastic, applicable across the value chain. The Philippines-based Plastic Flamingo has created plastic “lumber”, Japan’s Lixil Group is producing a high-quality paving material from plastic waste and Israel-based UBQ can recycle plastic even when it’s contaminated by food waste.

Bio-based plastics and biodegradable plastics present significant commercial opportunities, as do new material alternatives. While much focus is on end-of-life plastic solutions, reducing plastic production from the start is essential, including driving innovation through dematerialisation, to do more with less.

Other countries in the region do not suffer the same “out of sight, out of mind” problem. An estimated 3 million tonnes of plastic are openly dumped in Vietnam each year, with 10 per cent entering its waterways. Recent studies show that plastic constitutes up to 74 per cent of all waste in the rivers of Indonesia’s capital Jakarta. The same is true for the Philippines and Thailand, where plastic waste washes up on beaches, blocks aquifers and clogs drains.

One of the most intractable problems in India and lower-income regions is the widespread consumption of multilayer, multi-material sachet packaging, which can neither be recycled nor easily eliminated, and so must be burned, dumped or downcycled.

In most of the world where plastic has become an acute problem, structural constraints have slowed the development of solutions. Public services like waste collection are limited. Infrastructure is underdeveloped. Public policy and financial incentives to motivate investment are slow to materialise, compounded by weak local operational capacity.

Hong Kong enjoys the relative luxury of a world-class infrastructure to manage its waste. But on the issue of plastic, like many others, there is no real understanding of the scale of the problem, even in the surrounding region, creating blind spots to the opportunities. It is only by appreciating the vast differences in socio-economic development that commercial applications for the majority can be uncovered and captured.

Meanwhile, the world is moving rapidly towards a circular revolution, in plastics and other materials. Our team at the Global Institute For Tomorrow has been invited to help develop a circular centre of excellence in Bali, Indonesia, working with local government and private-sector partners, and building on our work with the Rebound Plastic Exchange.

Indonesia’s industry and government are responding to the threat posed by unmitigated plastic waste to ecosystem health, economic productivity and quality of life. Hong Kong’s innovation and technology leaders would benefit from studying the case of Indonesia, not because it is similar to Hong Kong, but precisely because it is very different.

If Hong Kong is to become an international innovation and technology hub, it will need to manage its considerable assets and resources to create new ventures, even developing entire new industries.

To do so, entrepreneurs, policymakers, investors and industry leaders need to understand problems beyond the rarefied environment of Hong Kong. Low-carbon transition, universal water and sanitation, services for marginalised urban residents, and global food security are just a few. Working to solve the catastrophic plastic waste crisis will be a good start.

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