By Tammy Allman
Hong Kong is choking on its own rubbish, suffocating under the weight of its unwanted garbage. The city is on the verge of a waste disposal crisis, according to the government and local environment groups.
Hong Kong simply produces too much waste. Its 7 million inhabitants generated 13,458 tonnes of waste per day in 2012, according to statistics recently released by the government’s Environmental Protection Department. That’s the equivalent in weight to the empire state building being thrown away every 27 days. As things currently stand, “even if we increase our recycling rate, there is no way we can deal with the thousands of tonnes of waste generated by our households, restaurants and construction sites,” said the EPD in a recent report.
Current recycling rates are a minuscule 14% of domestic waste and less than 3% of glass, according to local recycling organisation, HK Recycles. This is in comparison to neighbouring Taiwan and Singapore, whose governments have both implemented zero-waste policies. Singapore recycled over 60% of all waste in 2012 and since 2003 Taiwan has prioritised front-end prevention such as waste reduction and recycling ““ including mandatory waste separation – over treatments such as landfill expansion and incinerators, according to local government websites.
Hong Kong’s high-density population and lack of space mean that there is little scope to extend landfill capacity. Its three landfill sites are expected to be completely full by 2018 and a proposal to extend one of the sites was temporarily withdrawn amid public opposition and concerns over levels of toxicity, odour and air quality, last week. Alternative proposals such as a huge incinerator on Lamma, one of Hong Kong’s many picturesque out-lying islands and also home to a strong local and expat community, has understandably been met with stiff opposition.
The Environmental Protection Department admits it is on the back foot. “Hong Kong has fallen behind because we have only taken some of the steps. We need to urgently ï¬ll in the gaps,” said Kam-Sing Wong, the secretary for the environment, in May this year.
“The waste problem has been discussed over the years, and action is needed without further delay,” said EPD spokesperson Kelly Chan. Scrambling to address the issue, the government has set an aggressive recycling target of 55% by 2015. Somewhat belatedly following Taiwan’s lead of over a decade ago, Chan said, “we will undertake multiple”…actions to drive behavioural change to reduce waste at source through policies and legislation, including municipal solid waste charging and producer responsibility schemes. We will also roll out targeted territory-wide waste reduction campaigns, such as those promoting community participation in waste reduction, source separation of waste for recycling, food waste reduction and glass beverage bottle recycling.”
Local organisation HK Recycles is already leading the way with its enterprising recycling service. The organization was founded in 2012 by banker Mike Shum and Venture Capitalist Brian Mak who, having grown up in Hong Kong, went overseas to the US and Canada for school and work, and returned here shocked at the inadequate recycling provision.
For as little as HK$25 a week HK Recycles provides households with a full recycling collection service. They guarantee that all waste material collected will be recycled. However, it’s a drop in the ocean with a mere 1,000 households covered over six different districts across Hong Kong. But it is a rare beacon in a city with one of the lowest residential recycling rates of any developed country.
Their mission is to offer a recycling service but ultimately to promote waste reduction. “It’s simple: people need to use less,” said Operations Director, Joshua Tan. At the same time they hope to address the growing wealth divide in Hong Kong and help those that could otherwise be left behind, he said. This is recycling with a social and an environmental conscience.
HK Recycles creates employment opportunities for marginalised and under-privileged groups. Their refuse collectors are hired almost exclusively from marginalised groups, according to Tan. They are currently working with two charities who help battered women, often single-mothers with a history of domestic abuse, and also with a charity supporting the poor and marginalised in the South Asian community.
Their aim is to empower people to overcome tough personal conditions and allow them to thrive by providing employment opportunities with above-market wages when they might otherwise not be employable said Tan.
“It’s a two-fold issue,” said Vincent Chan, Operations Director of local food bank, Feeding Hong Kong. “We have a huge waste-disposal crisis and a burgeoning poverty problem.”
Feeding Hong Kong was founded in 2009, by British expat Gabrielle Kirstein. It is a locally registered charity that aims to fight hunger and reduce the amount of quality food being sent to Hong Kong’s landfills. The organization’s mission was founded on the basis that much of the surplus food thrown away each day in Hong Kong is still edible. As much as a third, according to Chan.
Feeding Hong Kong based its operational model on overseas food banks and in consultation with the Global Foodbanking Network. It had a fresh approach from existing HK-based food charities, in that it was the first to utilise surplus food donations rather than to purchase food for distribution, said Chan. Their first supply partner was the café chain Pret A Manger who guarantees its products are made fresh every day and that any surplus is donated to charities.
Each day over 3,500 tonnes of food waste is sent to landfill, according to Chan. A lot of that food is of good quality and is still edible, he said, even though it may be close to its nominal expiry date. At the same time there are “significant numbers of people in Hong Kong that aren’t able to access, aren’t able to afford enough to meet their basic nutritional requirements,” he said.
“Feeding Hong Kong’s aim is to match the needs of the poor with some of the edible food from industry that would otherwise be sent to a landfill,” said Chan. This he hopes, will make a significant impact on both poverty and food waste here. “We will basically take whatever they have that is surplus,” he said. “For every $8 food donation somebody gets a meal”….we currently distribute 15,000 meals a month”.
Chan said they receive on average around 9 tonnes of surplus food waste each month. Much of it is food that will not even hit the supermarket shelves, he said. More than 300 volunteers assist in the collection and distribution effort that involves liaising with a network of charities, including Action Care. The organisation operates on a skeleton staff of only five full-time employees, including Kirstein and Chan.
“A common reaction is shock when we start to speak of hunger and poverty in Hong Kong”, said Chan. “It’s not starvation or famine,” he said, “but poverty leads to hunger and it’s here, it is widespread and it is extensive”. Later, “We want to raise the awareness of poverty in Hong Kong and tackle it through food surplus,” he said.
Both HK Recycles and Feeding Hong Kong advocate legislative change to underpin radical reform, such as tax incentives for industry to reduce waste and for environmental education to be included as part of the school’s curriculum. The government is at long-last climbing on board but there is a fear that it may be a case of too little, too late. Although it has recently announced new initiatives and has a proposed blueprint for change, others say it doesn’t go far enough. “The blueprint shows only a dogged pursuit of large-scale engineering projects instead of tackling the root causes of the waste disposal problem,” reads one letter on the issue in the local media.
Ultimately, both government and grass-roots organisations agree that change requires a wholesale shift in attitudes of Hong Kong people. “It’s down to the individual,” said Joshua Tan of HK Recycles. “People need to use less, reuse and recycle.”
ABOUT THE WRITER
Tammy Allman obtained a degree in English Literature and worked as a high net wealth tax adviser for 14+ years. Following a move to Asia she is now studying for a masters degree in journalism. She has lived in Hong Kong for the past four years with her partner, Jonny, and their little girl, Maggie. Some of her main interests include literature, travel and the study and practice of yoga. She is a supporter and volunteer for the Cambodian Children’s Fund, a Cambodian-based charity. Follow Tammy on Twitter @TammyAllman1
Photos by Tammy Allman