Solutions to our garbage problem have gone to waste

October 24, 2015 08:02
Hong Kong is a notorious garbage producer by international standards with about 1.3kg of solid waste emitted per capita. Photo: HKEJ

Recycling bins are not the most scenic attractions in Hong Kong.

Yet in many locations, especially in New Territories villages, they are the most visible features, for all the wrong reasons.

Gaudily painted, prominently located on main roads and corners, overflowing recycling bins for paper, metal, plastic and glass are not the ideal welcome message to visitors.

This city is a notorious garbage producer by international standards with about 1.3kg of solid waste emitted per capita. (The figure for Tokyo is 1.08kg and Taipei about 0.9kg.)

The worst times of the year are festivals and holidays: another Mid-Autumn Festival just passed, meaning another million unwanted mooncake boxes.

For the past few years, environmental groups have been on the case of seasonal waste, reminding us how many containers are dumped – sometimes with the leaden treats still inside – to accumulate in our overstressed landfills.

This has been a big year for Hong Kong garbage news: the retail plastic bag levy took effect on 1 April and the Merchant Shipping (Prevention of Pollution by Garbage) Regulation designed to curb dumping by ships came into effect on 1 July.

The much-opposed Tseung Kwan O landfill extension was approved by the chief executive in council on 25 September.

Yet concern over Hong Kong’s waste disposal issue is not new: 25 years ago, an apocalyptic documentary about the problem was shown on Hong Kong television. Titled One Minute to Midnight, it warned of impending doom for the city under an uncontrollable landslide of garbage.

Its makers had the backing of the Hong Kong government: then-governor Sir David Wilson wanted to get Hong Kong’s waste disposal under control by the 1997 handover.

The economy was in the grip of a recession and the Environmental Protection Department was one of the few fiscal areas exempted from a budget freeze.

The government launched a huge public awareness campaign highlighting innovations, from mixing pig manure with sawdust to make fertilizer to promoting newspaper and plastic shopping bag recycling.

Back then, as now, all the pressure was applied to the consumer. One outdoor ad was emblazoned, “The Solution to Pollution”. It was a mirror.

Even back in 1990, we were urged not to use plastic bags, told to carry a washable cloth handkerchief instead of using paper tissue, and pack a refillable drinks container instead of buying plastic bottles of water when we went to country parks.

Consumers should act responsibly, but where are the incentives higher up the chain? Why aren’t companies prosecuted for over-packaging their products?

Why are media companies allowed to give away paper tissue with their newspapers in the morning?

Why are plastic bottles of branded drinks handed out at events?

Don’t want to pay 50 cents for a shopping bag?

Why aren’t companies encouraged to simultaneously reduce waste and increase their bottom line?

In April, the 759 snack store chain told an interviewer it saves nearly HK$500,000 per month by no longer providing shoppers with bags.

Making end users feel guilty only has so much effect. It would be a lot more effective to remove temptation in the first place.

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A Hong Kong-based writer and editor and former regional editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review. He has also been published in The Wall Street Journal, Variety and the SCMP. He is currently pursuing a master’s degree in journalism at HKU.