Worn out

Hong Kong Tatler - - Features -

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

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