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The last straw: brothers battle to rid Hong Kong of plastic drinking straws which pollute city’s waters

Campaigner Gary Stokes and his brother are seeking to reduce plastic waste, in particular in waters surrounding Hong Kong

Environmentalists are on a mission to rid Hong Kong of plastic drinking straws, concerned about the risk posed to marine life after being dumped in surrounding waters.

Gary Stokes, director of Sea Shepherd Asia, and his brother Andy, a graphic designer, are attempting to persuade the city’s bars and restaurants to replace their plastic straws with paper ones.

The pair are selling bright green biodegradable paper straws, which cost four times as much as the plastic variety, to businesses across Hong Kong for no personal profit.

They are also urging consumers to “just say no” to straws when they do not need one. So far the initiative has saved more than 80,000 plastic straws, with support from Hemingway’s in Discovery Bay, Mavericks in Pui O and Why 50 in Sheung Wan.

Gary Stokes said he ultimately hoped to attract corporate sponsors for the campaign, named “The Last Straw”, as well as encouraging a major food outlet such as McDonald’s to sign up.

“Hong Kong is fast-paced and many people have a disposable lifestyle,” he said. “I spend a lot of time on the water and I see the trash. Most of it is plastic. You use a plastic straw for about two minutes and it will be around for 150 years,” said Stokes.

The brothers launched their initiative on World Oceans Day on June 8 in a bid to help protect the city’s waters.

Similar projects have been launched overseas but theirs is thought to be the first major initiative of its kind in Hong Kong.

Plastic is a major contributor to Hong Kong’s landfills, which are expected to reach capacity by 2020. Between 1,200 and 2,000 tonnes of plastic waste are discarded in Hong Kong every day, according to estimates, although there are currently no estimates for the number of discarded straws.

In the US, which has a population about 45 times the size of Hong Kong’s, 500 million plastic straws are used every day.

When they are dumped in the ocean, plastic straws break down into tiny plastic particles and absorb toxins from the water. These particles are often ingested by fish, which
humans then eat.

Plastic straws also wash up on Hong Kong’s beaches, putting land mammals at risk. In recent years, there have been cases of sea turtles getting straws lodged in their nostrils, which often have to be removed with pliers.

Stokes, who campaigns on a wide variety of environmental issues, said he chose to address the issue of plastic straws because they cause significant damage and phasing them out would be “achievable”.

“People want to do the right thing and are prepared to do it, but it is just sometimes they are too busy or they do not know how to,” he said. “They just have to have it delivered to them or organised, they need someone to be the catalyst.

“Humans in general are selfish. They think; ‘how is it going to affect me?’ If everyone has the same mentality, then it will always carry on. We wanted to do straws first because it is more achievable.”

Johan Harmide, owner of Why 50 cafe, said he decided to support the scheme after witnessing the amount of waste on Hong Kong’s beaches for himself while living in
Discovery Bay.

He said he initially offered people the choice between paper or plastic straws, and customers tended to be split 50/50, but he eventually removed all plastic straws and
received positive feedback.

“I am very concerned about the environment here – it is disgusting on the beaches, it is terrible,” he said. “When Gary suggested it, I said right away that I was in. It is a perfect fit for us. I am trying to help inform the people of Hong Kong. We have beautiful beaches but you always find rubbish on them.”

Harmide said he agreed with Stokes’ philosophy that Hongkongers want to support the environment, but the fast-paced nature of city life means they do not always make environmentally friendly choices.

“We are just making the choice a bit easier,” he said. “Two people out of 10 ask why their straw is going a bit mushy, and then when we tell them they just say ‘ah ok’,” he said.

“It’s all good – the drink is gone in 30 minutes anyway.”

Plastic has previously been revealed as the most common material to wash up on Hong Kong’s beaches.

In a study by the Green Council in 2014, Chinese branded rubbish made up a third of the waste, suggesting items had floated over to Hong Kong from the mainland.

Stokes said he was encouraged by the number of Hong Kong businesses signing up to his scheme.

“Plastic is a big problem in the ocean,” he said. “We have one of the worst conservation waste rates per capita. We are certainly up there, which is why landfills are full. We want to provide the solution so people do not have the wiggle room to avoid it. So far the response has been amazing.”

The campaign comes after a group of expatriate residents called on Hong Kong’s supermarket chains to reduce the amount of plastic used for fruit and vegetables.

The Environmental Protection Department said at the time that there was a “strong community consensus” on food hygiene, so a drive to reduce excessive packaging was still on a voluntary basis.

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