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When the Ocean Vomits

As Hong Kongers, we should remember this scenario: two strong typhoons named Hato and Mangkhut that swept Hong Kong in 2017 and 2018 respectively. The strong winds and currents they brought along causing the oceans to flip out many used Styrofoam and plastic bottles. With the help of the humongous waves, these wastes were all thrown back to land. Located in the northeast coast of Hong Kong Island, Heng Fa Chuen unfortunately became one of the “Onshore garbage patch”.

Many neighborhoods voluntarily went to clean up the mess, environmental expert Leo Mak was amongst them. He picked up a piece of yellow Styrofoam, from the words printed on it, we predicted that it is from Hong Kong McDonald’s 20 or more years ago. The burger has long been eaten, digested and removed from the human body. Yet, nature is still having “indigestion” problem caused by the Styrofoam that was used to pack the food.

There is a saying: “You have to pay for what you did”. Do you know how much debt do human beings owe the environment as a whole? From the naked eye: In the Pacific Ocean, between Hawaii and California there is a Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It is located at a relatively current-stable area in the North Pacific Gyre, while rotating water current brought garbages from all around and parked at this location, slowly building up to become a vast patch.

Everyone was clamorous about the large garbage patch, some say it is as big as Texas, some suggest starting an empire on it and naming it “Trash Isles”…… Finally, scientists came to clarify: These floating objects do not have any physical place to set foot on, and it moves with the current, which is not easy to estimate its size. But one thing for sure, it is not the only one in the oceans.

Look at the image closely, in the “Trash Island” that leads to unlimited imaginations, it is not hard to sight Styrofoam fluttering in the oceans; greyish white, reflecting the sunlight without giving a damn.

One day, if the ocean decides to repatriate all these wastes to the land……


White Terror of the Ocean

There is no garbage patch in Hong Kong waters, but on local beaches, you will still find shocking images: The seashore is covered by greyish white, big, small and even ones that have broken down to small pellets like snowflakes. You would have thought that you have arrived the poles. Followed by the shock is a headache, picking up piece by piece, will there be an end to this calamity?

Really want to use this “White Terror” to convince everyone to stop using foam food containers, but we must point out that the main culprit of Styrofoam on beaches is not due to lunch boxes.

According to the “Hong Kong Marine Refuse Study Report” released by the Environmental Protection Department in 2015, it revealed that Styrofoam has taken the 2nd place (22%) among the floating garbage. It further stated that the main culprit are “Large Styrofoam boxes used to carry marine products and vegetables; Styrofoam boxes used for keeping caught fish during fishing trips by citizens; and food containers used during leisure activities.” Based on the 14,905 tonnes of marine refuse collected and recorded in 2013, it is estimated that there are 3,280 tonnes of Styrofoam.

The Green Earth has observed during beach cleaning activities that Styrofoam used in fishery has taken a big proportion. However, without any labeling, we could not find out whether they are generated from the local fishery or elsewhere. Styrofoam used in fishery can be used as bumpers to reduce shock; some are used as cultches for oysters; and some are used as boxes to carry marine products to the market. Due to its large size and cheap price, most of them are disposed of overboard, directly to the oceans.

The problem is, when sea turtles and fish accidentally ate it, not only is their digestive system being stuffed, they would also find it troubling to dive down in the oceans. Because swallowing Styrofoam is like attaching to a swim buoy that one cannot take it off. In the end, they can only float on the ocean surface and starve to death……

As for the Environmental Protection Department, the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, they have released “Avoid releasing Expanded Polystyrene foam to marine environment - Guidelines for wholesale fish markets & fishing vessels”, also set up a Styrofoam collection and compression facility in the wholesale markets to address the problem.


Love and Hate, the “Empty Pretentious fellow”

Holding number 6 of the recycling code, Styrofoam is literally an “Empty pretentious fellow”. Though usually labeled as “PS”, yet the PS (Polystyrene) it contained is minimal, maybe not even to 5%. So, what’s the rest? Air. In the making process, an expanding agent is injected into polystyrene which allows the material to expand 20 to 100 times of its original size, hence it is very light. Being so light, with heat resistant and waterproof properties, plus the fact that it is cheap, throwing it away won’t make anyone feel pity. No wonder people in the packaging industry “love it for 10,000 years”

Yet, what people in the packaging industry love, is exactly what troubles the people in the recycling industry.

From a recycling point of view, PS materials are graded into A, B and C by their cleanliness. The most valuable grade is class A, which must be pure white without any contamination. Class A materials are mainly from shock absorbing materials in electronic product packaging inside cardboard boxes. Once they are compressed, each tonne can be sold for 500 USD (price of February 2020). Styrofoam with smudges or impurities will be dropped to the middle price ranged class B. The cheapest grade is mixed or black class C Styrofoam, which worths 200 USD per tonne. As for the Styrofoam used in fishery mentioned above, since it has been dipped in the sea it almost does not have any recycling value.

You might ask, value for recovered Styrofoam is worth hundreds of US dollars, isn’t that very tempting?

The problem is, how could you get a tonne of Styrofoam while it is so light?

Here’s a primary school calculation:

A 5.5-tonne truck crossing the city is quite big for most people. However, it can only carry 70 kg of Styrofoam in one trip. How many trips does the truck need to take in order to collect 1 tonne of Styrofoam?

The Answer is 14.3 trips. Even for a class A Styrofoam that can be sold for 500 USD per tonne, after deducting costs such as truck rental, driver’s wages, fuel, factory rental, there’s not much left……


Styrofoam: Exiled to Landfills

Source from: “Municipal Solid Waste Monitoring Report”

Styrofoam used at sea are mostly dumped directly into the oceans; as for the ones used on land, due to the low profit from recycling, they also ended up in landfills. According to 2018 data, landfills in Hong Kong received 85 tonnes of Styrofoam per day, which means over 30,000 tonnes per year.

Various types of disposable tableware accounted for 40% or more, the remaining are trays for meat packaging, fruit protection nets, also shock absorbing materials in electronic product packaging inside cardboard boxes, etc.

Landfills receive over 10,000 tonnes of rubbish daily, Styrofoam is not even one percent of the total, is it really that serious? The problem is, intact Styrofoam is easy to clean, but the broken ones are hard to clean. They will gradually migrate to natural environments, once they are crumbled into small particles like snowflake, it will be the commencement of the white terror.

One good news is that Styrofoam dining ware is heading towards elimination. Currently, there are around 100 countries/ cities that have said no to Styrofoam dining ware, such as New York City and Vancouver.

What about Hong Kong? Hong Kong is currently doing a study. The Environment Bureau has predicted that the consultancy study for control of disposable tableware will be completed within 2020. As for high quality Styrofoam in electronic product packaging, will there be a solution? Due to the lack of producer responsibility schemes and recycling gateways, we can only rely on small-scale programmes launched by NGOs or recyclers in society, such as the ““Missing Link- Polyfoam Recycling Scheme”.


Styrofoam: Box Array

Photo provided by: Wesly Lau

Viewing the photo taken by a friend, it seems to remind us: Styrofoam doesn’t have to be disposable.

In mainland China, large amounts of Styrofoam boxes are used daily by goods vehicles to deliver vegetables to Hong Kong for sale. Some vegetable merchants had an idea, since the trucks will return to the Mainland with an empty container, why not to bring intact Styrofoam boxes back and reuse them? By so doing, they can save some money and economically manage the used Styrofoam boxes at the end of the day. Hope these vegetable merchants will also find a proper way to manage the broken Styrofoam boxes too.

This is the concept of circular economy, which also meets the basic environmental principle: reduce, reuse, recycle. If you can reduce using the product, reduce; if not, then reuse; if not, then recycle. Disposal should be the last resort.

The evolution of nature does not need others to witness especially these “Empty Pretentious fellows”.





One Styrofoam box can be counted as one piece of plastic waste, yet if it is grinded into small plastic pellets, it will become an uncountable and tricky problem. Try to get an estimate: How many plastic pellets /troubling problems does it require to make one Styrofoam box?

Besides Styrofoam, can you think of some practical alternatives?