AS ONE OF THE WORLD’S FOREMOST ECONOMIC HUBS, A SHOPPING MECCA AND A BANQUET CAPITAL, THE CITY HAS ALWAYS BEEN A HOTBED OF CONSUMERISM. IT’S ALSO AN INNATELY TRANSIENT PLACE; PEOPLE, RESTAURANTS AND TRENDS COME AND GO FASTER HERE THAN PERHAPS ANYWHERE ELS
The statistics are alarming. In the past 30 years, the amount of waste Hong Kong throws out every year has increased by almost 80 per cent, despite the fact the population has grown by only 36 per cent. The city generates an average of 1.36 kilograms of rubbish per person per day—far more than Tokyo (0.77kg), Seoul (0.95kg) and Taipei (1kg), meaning we have one of the largest percapita waste footprints in Asia.
Why are our figures so much higher than those of other major Asian cities? Documentarian and environmental advocate Sean Lee-davies suggests the excess stems from Hong Kong’s non-interventionist style of government. “There’s a general idea in Hong Kong that we can just live the luxury lifestyle and not give a hoot about the consequences,” he says. “Hong Kong has always had a laissez- faire kind of government and people don’t like having their lives infringed upon. There’s an attitude of ‘As long as you make money, you can do what you want.’ I think that’s the mentality that people in Hong Kong have always been used to.”
That’s also the perception our northern neighbours have of Hong Kong, according to Chan King-ming, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and director of its environmental science programme. His Mainland Chinese students are shocked by what they see as a “high-waste society where everything is used then dumped.”
And dumped it is. A whopping 64 per cent of the six million tonnes of waste the city generates each year goes into landfills. That compares to just 19 per cent in South Korea, 2 per cent in Taiwan, 1 per cent in Singapore and none whatsoever in Japan, which relies on a mix of recycling and incineration. And Hong Kong’s three landfills will be full by 2019. The situation is critical, so what’s the solution?
The first step—and it’s safe to say the government and green groups are unanimous on this point—is to reduce the amount of waste generated. Chan summons the Buddhist concept of nothingness: “If there are no materials used, then nothing needs to be treated.” The onus is on everyone to minimise the amount they consume—whether that means refusing packaging at the point of sale, choosing reusable napkins over paper serviettes, or thinking twice about updating your wardrobe every season.
The generation of some waste, though, is inevitable and the city must find ways of dealing with it. Many residents feel the government is not doing enough to encourage recycling. Hong Kong is one of the few developed cities in the region—and in the world—not to have laws that make recycling compulsory. And most residential buildings do not have facilities for recycling. It’s worth noting that once material enters a rubbish bag, its fate as landfill is sealed—nothing is salvaged from that point unless scavengers are brave enough to sift through the waste. While South Korea recycles 60 per cent of its waste, Taiwan recycles 50 per cent and Sydney recovers a whopping 68 per cent, Hong Kong’s figure hovers around 36 per cent.
To address the problem, we first need to know what we’re throwing away, as different materials must be dealt with differently. Perhaps the most astounding statistic is that food makes up more than 40 per cent of Hong Kong’s waste load, excluding construction industry waste. Domestic households discard 920,000 tonnes of it per year—equivalent to the weight of 250 double-decker buses every 24 hours. Paper and plastic each make up 20 per cent, and metal, glass, wood and textiles