18 April 2019
A file picture shows a bulldozer moving garbage across a landfill site in Hong Kong. Experts are calling for increased waste reduction and recycling efforts to prevent an ecological disaster. Photo: Bloomberg
A file picture shows a bulldozer moving garbage across a landfill site in Hong Kong. Experts are calling for increased waste reduction and recycling efforts to prevent an ecological disaster. Photo: Bloomberg

Time to reflect on our wasteful consumer culture

While the Lunar New Year holiday last month gave us an opportunity to get together with our families and friends and have a good time, it also provided us with a chance to reflect on our wasteful consumer culture.

Have you ever heard of the term “Earth Overshoot Day”? It refers to an imaginary date when mankind’s demand for natural resources in a given year goes beyond what our planet can regenerate in that same year.

According to studies from the Global Footprint Network and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the Earth Overshoot Day has been coming earlier and earlier each year. In 2016 it was on August 8, and in 2017 it was on August 2, suggesting that our “ecological deficits” are continuing to worsen.

Hong Kong people are perhaps all too familiar with the scenes where piles of trash are left behind by Lunar New Year night market-goers every year.

According to an estimate of the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD), around 330 tons of trash was collected on the Lunar New Year Day in the 15 night markets across our city, which is absolutely staggering even though the amount was down 35 tons from the level last year.

To put that in perspective, 330 tons of trash is approximately equal to the weight of 28 double-decker buses combined.

In recent years, our government has turned more proactive and eager than before when it comes to promoting waste recovery and recycling. For example, last year, the FEHD, for the first time, established waste recycling and recovery points in the Lunar New Year night markets, where people could collect whatever was usable for free.

However, apart from public awareness, another key to success in promoting waste recycling and recovery is the degree to which the various government departments are able to cooperate and coordinate their efforts efficiently.

Setting up waste recovery points can only achieve limited effects since street cleaners are often racing against time cleaning up the trash left behind by night market-goers, which means citizens don’t have much time in choosing and collecting usable items.

In order to strike a balance between waste disposal and waste recovery, I believe the Environmental Protection Department, which is responsible for overseeing waste recovery, should team up with the FEHD, which is responsible for cleaning up street waste, in order to achieve synergy and efficiency.

For instance, the two departments can discuss and coordinate their trash disposal and recovery efforts across the Lunar New Year night markets beforehand in order to maximize the effect.

Meanwhile, a survey conducted by the Consumer Council last November indicated that many chocolate gift boxes on sale in our local supermarkets are over-packaged.

In some extreme cases, the packaging accounts for at least half of the weight of the entire gift box. This is not only extremely wasteful, but is also misleading to customers.

Unfortunately, over-packaging of gift boxes for the Lunar New Year is only the tip of the iceberg, as over-packaging has become an industry-wide practice, and can be found in basically all sorts of commodities available on the market.

As I had suggested in one of my previous articles, the government should consider regulating the packaging of consumer products and legislating for a manufacturer accountability system, under which private enterprises are legally bound to arrange for the recycling of the goods they produce.

Meanwhile, the government should also facilitate waste reduction at source by educating the public about the benefits of not using fancy wrapping papers for their gifts.

The essence of celebrating seasonal occasions should be about the expression of goodwill and gratitude rather than overconsumption and wastefulness.

If we don’t act now, the Earth Overshoot Day will come earlier and earlier in the days ahead. Poor practices would take a toll on our natural resources and affect the prospects of our future generations.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb 23

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Member of Legislative Council (Functional Constituency – Accountancy)

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