“To me, plastic-free is impossible right now”: Perspectives from a plastic factory owner

Lau Dik San has been the owner of a plastic bag factory for more than twenty years. His factory, Hop Fat Plastic Bags Printing, is located in Tuen Mun, Hong Kong. The site has boxes of plastic bags stacked from floor to ceiling, and the tang of the polymers floats around, acrid and pungent. It would be an environmentalist’s nightmare. But to Dik San, the factory is both a family business and a site of creativity and memory. Walking around the factory, he gestures at the plastic manufacturing machine he and his brothers designed and built from scratch, talks about the way he used to spend evenings carting orders of raw materials up and down and around the site, and eventually pauses to admire the vibrant storefront sign his father had designed in the 1970s. Dik San is intimate with the processes of manufacturing, recycling, and reusing plastic, and for this week’s Currents article, he offers us a window with a view into industrial plastic use and misuse, and the cultural and systemic forces that guide them, beyond our everyday lives as plastic or plastic-free consumers. As eco-conscious consumers who have the financial capabilities to opt out of plastic, going plastic-free or as plastic-free as possible is relatively easy, and we often forget that plastic is ubiquitous or even necessary in some peoples’ lives. Plastic is Dik San’s livelihood. We thank him for sharing this perspective with us.

Note: This is a Terkelesque interview, which means that the interviewer’s questions were edited out to bring more cohesion to the interviewee’s story. The interview was also edited for length and translated into English from Cantonese.


The storefront sign for Hop Fat Plastic Bags, constructed by Dik San’s father in the 70s. It now sits within the plastic bag factory. (Photo credit: Sallie Lau)

 

My father started our company, Hop Fat, in the 1970s, so it’s 40, almost 50 years old. Half a century. But at first we weren’t a plastic bag manufacturer. If you wanted to talk about plastic bags, then we started in 1976. 

Why did we transition to plastic? Well, take buying groceries. People back then were very environmentally friendly! We brought baskets to carry our groceries in. If you bought pork from the butchers, they would use an old newspaper to wrap it up. If you bought vegetables, you would walk back home with your veggies bundled with some long sedge grass (Cyperus malaccensis). But now, do you really think that people would go back to using newspapers and sedge grass? Not in Hong Kong! Plastic is convenient, and people wanted a higher quality of life.That piece of pork wrapped in newspaper: back then we’d bring it back home, wash it a bit, cook it, and it’s all good. But now people are scared of contamination. I remember in the 70s, I went down to the market to buy a bunch of spring onions for my mom. The vegetable stall owner gave it to me bundled in long sedge grass. And then I bumped into a girl in my class, and I was so embarrassed, because you know, sedge grass isn’t pretty. 

Obviously, plastic is the cause and effect of people wanting more convenience. Are people using too much plastic? I actually don’t think that people getting grocery bags from the wet market are using [plastic] too much. It’s when you start thinking about the elaborateness of plastic packaging for marketing purposes, that’s too much. Think about the iPhone: there’s a lot of plastic packaging involved, or individually wrapped buns at that bakery franchise, or pineapple cake – each one wrapped in plastic and then a box and then more plastic. Or omiyage in Japan – each sweet is wrapped in plastic. It’s a lot of waste, but people like how beautiful it is. 

Plastic packaging for electronic devices produced by Hop Fat Plastic Bags in the 1990s. The more complex the print on the bags (see leftmost sample), the harder for it to be recycled and reused. (Photo credit: Dik San Lau)

 

You’re asking me why people were so environmentally friendly back then. Well, people didn’t think they were environmentally friendly. The term “environmentally friendly” didn’t even exist. It’s only in the 90s that we became aware of environmental protection in Hong Kong. No one knew or cared back when I was growing up. They cared about whether or not they could afford that piece of pork. 

Well, it’s not like I was actively thinking about it either. I’m not that great of a person. I just want to make a living. But I remember it was when we started partnering with the Hong Kong Environment Protection Department, and they were talking about this thing called photodegradation. And before that – it’s not like there was any waste. Everything was recycled. We collected the waste plastic bags, melted them back into pellets, and turned them into new plastic bags. When photodegradation became a thing, it was already the 1990s. The Hong Kong Jockey Club started talking about it as well, since they were a big corporation. They were like, “can you use some degradable materials for our packaging?” But then, after research, we found out that degradation only meant disintegration into smaller particles. I remember when the typhoon Mangkhut blew across Hong Kong Island in 2018, McDonalds lunch boxes from the 1990s, shopping bags from Wellcome (a local grocery store chain) resurfaced, entirely intact. Well, it’s not surprising; it’s plastic. But if people had known that they could recycle those bags, then at least we would have reduced our raw plastic material use, and less plastic bags would have ended up in the ocean.

Dik San and his brother, Kinsun, in the factory. Most of Hop Fat’s production has moved to mainland China, but the Hong Kong factory remains as a storage site and office, where Dik San, Kinsun, and their younger brother Tatsun manage operations. (Photo credit: Sallie Lau)

 

Recycling is difficult though. It’s actually costly. Think about how in Hong Kong, we have to put our recyclables in the car and bring it to the community recycling station. Last week, our paper recycling wasn’t even 2kg. But we had to use a lot of gas to drive to the recycling station. That’s a high transportation and environmental cost. I mean, it’s important to understand that the concept itself is good! We need to do it even though we don’t have a lot to recycle and the cost is high. But we need more local, more accessible recycling plants. Lots of people don’t know where to bring their recyclables. 

As manufacturers, we’re actually pretty powerless. We can tell our industrial clients, “hey, why don’t we use more environmentally-friendly, recycled materials to make your bags?” But companies don’t like it because it’s not aesthetically pleasing. Like an airline company we produce packaging for – they don’t like us using recycled plastic to make the bags they put blankets. We say that we can put the recycled plastic in between two layers of new plastic; that way, we can reduce the use of new plastic while not letting the recycled plastic touch the blankets if hygiene is the issue. The airline company told us no. It’s because recycled plastic is less transparent, less pure. So in the end we could only use 100% new plastic pellets. It’s really a lot better if we used 30-40% recycled plastic, because that’s reduction, but people have the perception that less transparent plastic is less clean. But anyway, there are other ways to reduce. For example, at the airport, they need plastic film to cover and shelter goods from the elements. We used to produce film that was 0.05 microns thick, but now we can produce film that’s 0.04 microns but just as strong. That’s good, because it’s a 20% reduction in plastic use and production.

Thinner plastic bags coloured with water-based ink, a more environmentally friendly alternative to oil-based ink. (Photo credit: Lau Dik San)

 

When thinking about zero waste of something, or zero use of something, you really have to think about whether a replacement exists. Are you actually using none of that material? To me, plastic-free is kind of impossible right now. Your glasses are probably plastic. So is your shirt. For clothes, you say you want it to be 100% cotton. I want that too! I love 100% cotton! We had these white cotton vests back then that were so breezy and cool. But they cost a lot now. We don’t have enough cotton to go around.

So yeah, it’s about cost as well. Some time ago, our family got some of those beeswax sheets that were supposed to be a cling wrap replacement. Once we got it, we were like, “why did we get it? Tupperware is so much more affordable!” Tupperware is made of plastic, but you’re still decreasing your plastic use with tupperware’s reusability. And it’s cheaper. I’m always emphasising reduce and reuse. You gotta be realistic. Everything’s got plastic in it. Even ceramics. 

You can progress towards plastic-free. Maybe now 50% of the stuff you possess is plastic. All we can do is aim for less, and then less, and then less. 

For the full original or translated transcript, please email our editors.