comprise the rest. The government aims to cut the amount of rubbish sent to landfill by 40 per cent by 2022. So what is being done to divert these materials from their destiny?
Food waste needs to be addressed urgently. Not only is it a waste of resources, but it releases significant quantities of the greenhouse gases methane and carbon dioxide as it rots. Donating surplus food to those in need is a winning solution. Organisations like Foodlink and Feeding Hong Kong are doing a brilliant job of redistributing leftover food from restaurants, supermarkets and private banquets to the hungry, and they’re always looking for more partners.
For food that’s spoiled, the government is pinning its hopes on a network of organic waste treatment plants that use anaerobic digestion technology. It plans to build up to six of these plants, which capture gas from decomposing food and convert it to energy, by 2024. The first, scheduled to open in 2017 in Siu Ho Wan, North Lantau, will produce enough electricity to power 3,000 households, according to the Environmental Protection Department (EPD).
But for these plants to be effective, food must first be separated from the rest of a household’s rubbish. Since 2011, the Housing Authority has conducted food-separation trials at 14 public housing estates. But that’s as far as it’s gone. Despite the fact two-thirds of food waste is produced by domestic households, Environment Undersecretary Christine Loh says her team’s priority is commercial and industrial food waste. The collection of food waste from domestic sources, she says, is more challenging because there are many types of residential dwellings, many of which have insufficient space for handling waste. The EPD says it is now “planning to initiate a study” on the collection of commercial and domestic food waste to assess the logistical challenges.
Space—or the lack of it—is a hot topic when it comes to recycling. The cramped stairwell landings where most communal rubbish bins reside do not lend themselves to sorting and collecting. “To stockpile recyclables to the degree that it’s worth a contractor’s while to come and pick them up requires time and space,” says Pok Fu Lam district councillor Paul Zimmerman, the co-founder of Designing Hong Kong. In today’s more waste-conscious environment, the designers of new buildings tend to include refuse rooms where residents can do this, but most older buildings don’t have them.
Zimmerman suggests that instead of asking residents to separate their recyclables the way the Japanese, Sydneysiders, South Koreans and Taiwanese do, the government should ask households to dispose of their waste in two bags: a black garbage bag for dirty, unrecyclable materials, and a transparent plastic bag for clean recyclables. The black bag would be collected as usual and sent to a landfill, and the clear bag would be collected by a separate truck and taken to a recycling centre where the contents would be mechanically separated and stockpiled ready for export or sale. “That way, factories that want these materials could then get them in a volume that makes it economically viable for them to run their businesses,” he says, noting that Rio de Janeiro uses this system.
Loh believes that’s out of the question for Hong Kong. The government has been directing its efforts towards promoting separation at source for the past few years, and it’s not going to change its path now. So what exactly is the government doing, in terms of infrastructure, to enable people to responsibly dispose of their recyclables?
Private housing estates may apply for free waste-separation bins from the government but, unlike in many other cities where the government handles the collection, property management companies here must hire contractors to pick up recyclables. The EPD claims 80 per cent of the population now has access to recycling bins—whether those in residential refuse rooms or the street-side “Litter/recyclables Collection Bins”.
But do Hongkongers feel that’s enough? “Absolutely not,” says Lee-davies. “Recycling is voluntary, and even if you do volunteer to recycle your waste, there is nothing close by in which to dispose of it. There should be a recycling unit in every apartment block. The government needs to step up and do that.” Zimmerman agrees. “Those street-side bins are always full, and it’s madness to have to discard bottle by bottle. The logistics have never been properly sorted out.”
Beyond infrastructure and logistics, there is another challenge. Given that Hong Kong has become a service economy, there are few factories to make use of recycled material. A whopping 93 per cent is exported—mostly to Mainland China, Japan, South Korea and Southeast Asia. This puts us at the mercy of the international market—only when prices are high is it worth contractors’ while to collect and export material. Right now paper and metal are lucrative, but there is much less international demand for plastics and almost none for textiles.
“There’s a school of thought, which I buy into, which is that the government should subsidise the cost of recycling locally,” says Bernard Chan, chairman of the Council for Sustainable Development and a member of the Executive Council. “Why? Because there is a long-term cost of dumping these materials in landfills anyway.” Sending waste Textiles are almost 100 per cent recyclable but around 80,000 tonnes of them were sent to landfills in Hong Kong in 2011. “Brands have to take much more responsibility for their output. Many are now looking at how they produce textiles, but not many brands have thought about what happens to the goods once they’ve been worn,” says Sean Lee-davies, who tries to buy bespoke and made-tomeasure items instead of hot seasonal pieces to curb the amount he throws away.
Stella Mccartney is particularly conscious of the issue. All bags made by the brand are lined with fabric manufactured from recycled plastic water bottles, and since 2010 biodegradable plastic has been used in its shoes. Balenciaga recently launched a programme that gives a second life to unused textiles and has since produced 2,000 bags from these materials.
“Inefficient use of materials results in the production of waste which increases the need for extraction of raw materials, which comes at a huge environmental cost,” says Marie-claire Daveu, chief sustainability officer at Kering, the luxury conglomerate that owns the Stella Mccartney and Balenciaga brands.
H&M, too, is working to curb textile waste. Customers can hand in unwanted textiles from any brand in any condition at H&M stores. The brand then uses these to create new fibres, fabrics and ultimately new garments, or sends them to be made into insulation for houses and cars. For the locations of used clothes recycling banks, visit had.gov.hk