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Finance & Innovation

Hong Kong Looks to Install 'Reverse Vending Machines' to Help Curb Plastic Waste

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"Reverse vending machines" may soon be a common sight in Hong Kong.

The machines, which accept used plastic bottles and dispense cash in return, are one way the city hopes to reduce the 5.28 million bottles dumped daily into landfills.

The proposal to install the machines was announced on Sunday, as part of a larger government initiative that includes a plan to shift the financial responsibility of dealing with plastic waste over to the producer, while incentivizing consumers to recycle.

Take Action: Call on Governments and Business Leaders to Say No to Single-Use Plastics

Under the new plan, consumers purchasing items packed in plastic bottles will be charged a deposit fee, which they can reclaim when they return the bottles to the machines conveniently placed at subway stops, snack vending machines, and in malls. A similar plan was implemented in England in March.

“In places overseas that have such systems, plastic bottle recycling rates have been exceptionally high – 50% in some cases, or even as high as 80% or 90% in others," Environment Minister Wong Kam-sing said.

While recycling and such "reverse vending machines" may be common to many Europeans and Americans, the practice is less widespread in Hong Kong and other places around the world.

Hong Kong uses enough plastic bottles in a day to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool. In a year, all the bottles the islands use could circle the Earth eight times.  But only 14% of those bottles are currently recycled, according to Green Earth. The other 86%, weighing a total of 132 tons, sits in the three landfills in New Territories off the main island of Hong Kong.

Read More: US and Japan Refuse to Sign G7 Pact Against Plastic Pollution

But Hong Kong, a Special Administrative Region of China, hopes to emulate the success the US has seen since passing legislation to incentivize recycling in 1971, with the passing of the the Oregon Bottle Bill.

The bill required distributors to charge a bottle fee to retailers using plastic bottle packaging. Though retailers passed that charge onto consumers, consumers who bring emptied containers to “reverse vending machines” or recycling centers are given the bottle deposit back. This practice creates a financial incentive for retailers, distributors, and consumers to keep the container in circulation.

Since then, 10 other states have adopted the legislation. In 2016, Michigan claimed the top redemption rate at 92.2%, and Oregon claimed the lowest among states with such policies at 64.3% for overall recycling (metal, glass, and plastic).

Bottle DepositBottle deposit information displayed on plastic bottles sold in the United States
Image: Jasper Lo/Global Citizen

Read more: Ikea Will Phase Out Single-Use Plastics From Its Stores by 2020

The new “reverse vending machines” could also be a game-changer in the island territory of Hong Kong, where land is so scarce that even columbariums (buildings where urns with cremated remains are stored) are running out of spots. Reducing plastic waste in landfills is now a top priority for the city.

Global Citizen campaigns to protect the environment and halt climate change. You can take action here to call on governments and business leaders to say no to single-use plastics.