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Hong Kong's quarantine hotels are creating mountains of plastic waste

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Cleaners wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) dump garbage outside a quarantine hotel during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Hong Kong.
Cleaners wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) dump garbage outside a quarantine hotel during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Hong Kong.   -   Copyright  REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
By Aleksander Solum  with Reuters

Plastic is everywhere for arrivals at Hong Kong's quarantine hotels. Remote controls are wrapped in cellophane, pillows are encased in plastic bags and food comes with plastic cutlery.

Strict quarantine policies - intended to halt COVID-19 at the border and prevent its spread in the community - have been criticised for damaging the economy and mental health.

Now environmentalists say the policies are also hurting the environment by generating excess waste.

“Every single one of the staff members here wears full PPE ... the gowns, the gloves, the booties, the hats, and that's every staff member and on every floor," says Hong Kong-based skincare entrepreneur Clementine Vaughan, who flew into the city on 4 April.

"The phones, you know, the remote controllers, everything's been cellophane-wrapped," she said, speaking to Reuters from her quarantine hotel.

Hong Kong disposes of over 2,300 tonnes of plastic waste a day and, with a recycling rate of just 11 per cent according to government figures, most of it goes into landfills.

A government spokesperson said officials were aware of a surge in disposable waste since COVID began, and they have been encouraging people to adopt a green lifestyle where possible.

TYRONE SIU/REUTERS
A general view of West New Territories Landfill during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Hong Kong.TYRONE SIU/REUTERS

But Edwin Lau, with local environmental group The Green Earth, believes Hong Kong’s approach to COVID reflected its lack of environmental awareness.

"People living in quarantine hotels, they are not confirmed cases,” Lau said, urging the government to allow the recycling or reuse of plastics from quarantine facilities.

Hong Kong, one of the few places that still has a zero-COVID policy, has quarantined tens of thousands of people this year in facilities for the COVID-positive and near contacts.

The facilities add to the waste problem, with residents confirming to Reuters all meals came in plastic bags.

Paul Zimmerman, an elected district councillor, said the facilities are also wasteful because they can't be used in the long-term for purposes like public housing.

“They've been built very quickly ... (and don't) comply with any particular building standards we have in Hong Kong.”