Waste management: What we can do to?
This is the fourth in a series of articles exploring policies to address Hong Kong’s waste management challenges.
Afavorite quote from former US president John F. Kennedy’s inauguration speech can work here as much as in the US: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” While we are right to demand that the government adopt more sustainable solutions to Hong Kong’s waste management problem than the old policy of perpetual use of landfills, we also need to consider what action ordinary citizens can take.
True, some of the waste that has to be disposed of every day is beyond our personal control. The construction industry, a mainstay of the Hong Kong economy, generates a quarter of the solid waste disposed of in the territory’s three strategic landfills — though this is only 6 percent of total construction waste, the other 94 percent already goes to facilities where it can be re-used. Around 2,000 tons a day of dewatered sludge are produced by sewerage and waste water treatment plants. Vehicles emit waste gases which pollute the air we breathe. Our marine environment is polluted by industrial effluent and untreated sewage.
But much of the waste is what we throw in the bin, and we can control that. Each of us, on average, dumps more stuff than residents of Taipei, Seoul or Tokyo. Domestic waste makes up 44 percent of all waste received at landfills. We can reduce this if we alter our consumption habits so that we acquire and use less, and throw less away. Where this is not possible, we can re-use or recycle what we do not need.
The largest item is food waste: “putrescibles” make up 44 percent of our daily offload (the next largest is paper, at 22 percent, and plastics, 19 percent). While some of this is inedible material like vegetable peelings and bones, much of it is perfectly good food that is left over at the end of a meal.
There needs to be a change in our food culture. Eating less, and betterquality food makes us healthier and reduces the risk of obesity. There is no need to store excessive quantities of food, much of which will be chucked out when it reaches its sell-by date. Buying what we need makes our household budget go further. And children should be taught — by adult example — to clean their plates. In restaurants, we can ask for smaller portions. If you have too much food in the kitchen, you can help feed the hungry by donating some of it at one of the many collection points operated by charities. They usually accept unopened packages of non-perishable food that has not yet reached its “best before” date, so don’t try giving them the leavings from your dinner table (which you shouldn’t have anyway if you’ve done what I told you).
If you habitually replace your computer or iPhone as soon as the latest version goes on sale, consider whether you can go on using your current model for a few months or years longer. This may be a good bet anyway, as it means you can wait until the initial bugs have been ironed out.
Before getting rid your old computer, think whether you might have an alternative use for it or whether your family or friends could use it. When you do eventually dispose of it, do so safely by taking it to a collection center.
The same goes for clothes. Do you really need so many? You can free up closet space by donating or selling items you have stopped wearing. They’ve probably gone out of fashion anyway. Be cool!
In poorer times, we often had to wear “hand-me-downs” because we couldn’t afford new clothes, so now that the economy has developed we shun “second-hand” items. But in prosperous countries it is now highly fashionable for rich people to shop for used clothes at charity shops like Oxfam. Find one and use it.
Thanks largely to an initiative launched by the government in 2005, 80 percent of us now have clearly labeled recycling bins in our apartment blocks or near our houses in which we can put paper, aluminum cans and plastic bottles. On some estates there are also facilities for collecting and recycling food waste as compost or landscaping.
It doesn’t take much extra effort to separate our waste instead of dumping everything in the same bin. If, though, you know someone, perhaps elderly or disabled, who does find this irksome, you might volunteer to help them do this.
There are also local collection points encouraged by the Community Recycling Network that can take low-value recyclables including waste plastics, glass bottles and small electrical and electronic items.
As initiatives like EcoPark (in Tuen Mun) develop, there are more and more opportunities to recycle more categories of waste to produce things we can use. This includes turning cooking oil into biodiesel, waste wood into wood chips, waste glass into glass paving blocks. As Head of Global Relations in the OECD’s Investment Division up to 2010, the author wrote and published major policy reviews for the governments of China, India, Indonesia and the Russian Federation.