Takeout Packaging – 3 Wishes For The New Year

By Helga Vanthournout 23 December, 2021

ADMCF's Vanthournout shares how HK can stop choking on F&B single-use plastic plus 3 wishes for the New Year

HK used & discarded 3.9bn single-use takeout items in 2019 - more than any other in the region; driven by a culture of convenience & severe space restrictions
Alternatives are available: recycling & BYO show most promise in the short term; using them for hot food containers offers the most optimal segment combination
A triple mandate 'tackle all single-use foodservice, use a portfolio of tools & start now' is key; citizens, F&B operators & policymakers all have an important role to play

ADM Capital Foundation’s (ADMCF) Eat Without Waste initiative aims to address a complex knowledge gap in Hong Kong’s waste management issue on takeaway meals. The team’s researchers have established a granular view of Hong Kong’s take-out waste landscape and offer pathways forward for  food & beverage operators, policymakers, and consumers to collectively address the critical waste issue. The resulting report can be found here: Eat Without Waste: Hong Kong’s Takeout Packaging Challenge

Hong Kong is already choking on takeout waste

As we increase our holiday consumption of the region’s culinary delicacies, let’s be more mindful of how and where we enjoy them. New research by Ashley Bang, data scientist at ADM Capital Foundation, and myself estimates Hong Kong used and discarded 3.9 billion single-use takeout items in 2019, more than any other in the region. In the meanwhile, the world’s—and Hong Kong’s—takeout habits further have intensified with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

HK used & discarded 3.9bn single-use takeout items in 2019 – more than any in the region…


…During the pandemic, takeout orders increased 50% meaning even more waste

Hong Kong’s prolific use of single-use packaging for takeout is driven by a culture of convenience and severe space restrictions in a densely-packed city, and is compounded by ample use of disposables for on-site dining. This packaging, which is wastefully sent to landfill, is also responsible for much of the litter in our country parts and across our beaches.

Following the introduction of restrictions on eateries and quarantine requirements in response to the pandemic, local hospitality groups and delivery platforms experienced up to 50% more takeout orders, a trend predicted to last beyond the pandemic, driving volumes of takeout packaging waste to grow further.

Alternatives are available – Recycling & BYO show most promise in the short term

We evaluated a suite of potential solutions based upon circular economy principles—Recycling, Bring-Your-Own (BYO), Composting, and loaned Reuse systems—for their full potential to divert disposable takeout packaging from landfill. We assessed costs, effort to implement the solutions and environmental impacts.

We evaluated a suite of potential solutions based upon circular economy principles…

..HK will have to tap more than one solution

Hong Kong and its F&B operators will have to tap into more than one solution to reach the best waste reduction outcome, as no one solution can single-handedly cover all of the city’s applications for cups and food containers.

Recycling & BYO show the most promise…

…they are accessible to a large segment

In all scenarios we modelled, the Recycling and BYO archetypes show the most promise. Since these solutions are applicable and accessible to a large segment of the Hong Kong market, they have the potential to keep the largest number of containers out of landfills, with limited environmental impacts. Importantly, both solutions can be dialed up and down relatively easily. This means that they can be encouraged and stimulated for the containers on today’s market, without creating a barrier to future implementation of more complex solutions like Composting or Reuse.

While Reuse systems show the highest potential from an environmental impact perspective, the solution is hindered by its comparatively high cost and logistical demands that make it feasible for only certain segments of the Hong Kong market. Because of its very strong environmental performance, there is value in identifying the locations and configurations where the Reuse solution could be more readily implemented.

Plant-based & compostable packaging still end up in HK’s landfills

Contrary to popular belief, plant-based and Compostable packaging will still end up in Hong Kong’s landfills. Our market currently lacks the industrial infrastructure to compost this type of packaging, so F&B operators and consumers should be aware of the actual impact of what they perceive as more sustainable options.

Even if such infrastructure were to be established in the future, compostable containers still produce the most greenhouse gas emissions (per use) compared to other solution types. But with the right collection and processing infrastructure in place and if scaled up, Composting could displace a large share of currently landfilled volumes.

Where to focus? Greatest opportunity is with hot food

Since hot food containers make up the large majority of single-use foodservice packaging on the Hong Kong market, applying solutions to address this segment offers a stronger potential impact than addressing hot/cold beverage containers or cold food containers.

Therefore, to maximize the number of containers kept from landfills, applying Recycling and BYO for hot food containers offers the most optimal solution/segment combination. Since these measures might be both technically and behaviorally easier for hot and cold beverages, however, that may be where F&B operators want to start their immediate efforts.

Hot food containers make up the large majority of single-use foodservice packaging…

…so, applying recycling & BYO for hot food containers offers the most optimal segment combination

A triple mandate for tackling takeout packaging

  1. Tackle all single-use foodservice packaging, not just plastics: Addressing just one type of single-use food packaging, such as plastic, would inevitably cause a shift to other forms of single-use takeout packaging and would not contribute to Hong Kong’s landfill diversion or litter reduction goals.
  2. Use a portfolio of tools. As the research shows, we will need a broad portfolio of interventions to tackle the takeout packaging waste problem from multiple but tightly coordinated angles.
  3. Start now. We should not wait for the proposed hard-hitting piece of legislation that will take time to build consensus around. The work to keep takeout packaging waste out of landfills must and can start today.

Three wishes for the new year

For Hong Kong to achieve its aspiration of zero landfill, we need to act in a number of areas without delay, while also designing future strategy and actions. That’s why I’d like to formulate three wishes for the coming year.

Everyone needs to act – citizen’s, F&B operators & policymakers

For Hong Kong’s citizens, to start making daily choices at home, at work, and on the go that can collectively instigate a societal shift away from disposal and landfills. To opt for reusable containers whenever possible and recycle any single-use products if the infrastructure is in place. To keep signaling their interest in systemic adjustments and infrastructure upgrades to Government and hospitality stakeholders.

For Hong Kong’s F&B operators, to lead by example: instead of waiting for policy change, to encourage widespread shifts in consumption and takeout habits by improving consumer communication, adjusting standard operating procedures (SOPs) to accommodate reusable containers, and carefully evaluating the full lifecycle of any single-use products offered by their establishments.

For Hong Kong’s policymakers, to develop a portfolio of policies to help environmentally beneficial solutions compete with the convenience and low cost of single-use takeout containers. To expand a potential ban on single-use plastic tableware to all materials. To complement such a ban with other forms of policy support, such as education and engagement with consumers and hospitality stakeholders, incentives for reusable container usage, regulation of harmful packaging materials, and investments in waste management infrastructure.

Further Reading

  • Drink Without Waste: Re-Thinking Single-Use Plastic Beverage Packaging In HK – With over 80% of beverage packaging ending up as waste in Hong Kong’s landfills, leading bottlers & produces with NGOs have launched a working group to reduce single use plastic. ADM Capital Foundation’ Sophie Le Clue expands
  • Plastic Waste: The Vector For Change – USD13billion is the annual cost of impact of plastic pollution to our oceans. Doug Woodring, founder of Ocean Recovery Alliance, shares challenges ahead and strategies for a plastics-free ocean
  • Less Food Waste From Farm to Fork – China’s new plan on grain supply and storage says saving grain means saving water. China Water Risk’s Feng Hu contemplates challenges & opportunities in reducing food waste for a hungry & thirsty future
  • Diet, Food Waste & Kids In 5 Graphics – Agriculture emits as much greenhouse gas as electricity and this needs to change. China Water Risk’s Woody Chan sees 3 ways to reduce this, from changing diets and cutting food waste to fewer kids

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Helga Vanthournout
Author: Helga Vanthournout
Helga Vanthournout is a strategic advisor at ADM Capital Foundation, where she also led the work on the Foundation’s most recent research report, Eat Without Waste: Hong Kong’s Takeout Packaging Challenge. Through Wealth of Flows Consulting, Helga contributes over 20 years of professional experience helping organisations find the straightest path towards circular models—expertise from authoring critically acclaimed reports on the Circular Economy with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and other partners, and deep and broad client service in the Circular Economy and waste management space
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