Hauling large bags of plastic food packaging, egg cartons, polystyrene trays and other recyclable garbage, residents of Sai Ying Pun wait patiently as volunteers sort the items into their respective bins: six for plastics, and several more for paper and metals.
“If it breaks, it’s probably Type Six plastic. If it doesn’t, it’s probably Type Five,” says Tam Kwok-sun as he bends an unmarked, single-use plastic spoon.
The 63-year-old retired teacher is one of around half a dozen volunteers at “Waste-no-mall Sai Ying Pun” – a makeshift community recycling station outside the local MTR station. The group started organising the fortnightly event last May.
“I was inspired to do this because I’ve seen sanitation workers dump everything they’ve collected from public recycling bins into the same pile,” says Tam.
Concerned that people would start dumping rubbish irresponsibly once the government’s mandatory waste charging scheme for households and shops kicks in next year, Tam believes public education is essential.
Going off the grid in Hong Kong: how one man is living his dream
Across Hong Kong, residents and volunteers in towns and neighbourhoods such as Tsuen Wan, Kwun Tong, Chai Wan and Tai Po, are stepping up recycling efforts themselves, apparently driven by a shared mistrust of the government’s waste management measures.
According to the latest official figures, in 2017, Hong Kong generated 5.75 million tonnes of municipal solid waste – domestic, commercial and industrial – a slight year-on-year increase of 0.9 per cent.
It’s a good reminder that we’re using too much plastic and that we should at least try to make better choices
Maggie Atienza, workplace trainer
Although domestic waste generated fell annually by 1.9 per cent, commercial and industrial waste rose by 4.1 per cent. The Environmental Protection Department (EPD) says it believes the latter is part of the reason Hongkongers on average sent around 3 per cent more waste to landfill in 2017 than in 2016.
Meanwhile the proportion of waste recovered for recycling stood at 32 per cent of the total collected – a 10-year low for the city.
Experts say the low recycling figure, the leakage of imported waste into the city’s landfills and the lack of a comprehensive scheme that holds manufacturers accountable for the waste they produce are important factors contributing to Hong Kong’s waste problem.
And while they agree the community recycling initiatives are a welcome sight, they believe that, ultimately, the onus is on the government to help reduce waste at source.
In Sai Ying Pun, workplace trainer Maggie Atienza expresses despair at the amount of food packaging she has brought to the volunteer-led recycling station.
“We get most of our food from supermarkets and it comes in all this packaging, but we have no choice. It’s a good reminder that we’re using too much plastic and that we should at least try to make better choices,” says Atienza, who has been going to the makeshift station since last August.
“I used to recycle in the three-colour bins, but my partner has seen workers mixing all the recyclables together before taking them away. At least here, it’s organised and we know where our recyclables are going.”
Tam says he and his volunteers send the plastic items they collect to a Sheung Shui facility, where they have witnessed workers processing the recyclables.
University of Hong Kong academic Jeff Saunders has been bringing his discards to every recycling event since he found out about it a few months ago. “I have to come here every time because I accumulate a lot of stuff in two weeks,” he says.
On this afternoon alone, Saunders and dozens of others deliver a total of 140kg, mostly plastic.
“Seeing all the stuff I’ve accumulated makes me want to try to use less,” he says.
Recyclers in Hong Kong brace for temporary wastepaper ban
About four months ago, volunteers in Tsing Yi also jumped on the community recycling bandwagon. Volunteer Patrick Wong Man-ho, 40, who works in banking, thinks the government is not doing enough.
Those with recyclables are expected to bring the items cleaned, but Wong says: “Some first-timers at our station actually expected us to clean their recyclables for them, because they felt they had already taken an extra step to save their recyclables and to bring them here. So a big part of what we’re doing is helping to educate the community.”
When rotting food or the wrong materials such as confectionery wrappers or labels get included, there is a risk of contamination and an entire recycling load can end up rejected.
By accepting six types of plastics, Wong’s group also hopes to provide more recycling options other than the government’s “three types of waste paper and two types of waste plastic containers”, which refers to paperboard, newspaper and office paper, and plastic drink bottles and plastic bottles commonly used for personal care products.
Rethinking waste: what next as China bans imports and recycling fails?
The government’ prioritised these items following mainland China’s ban on imported waste in 2017.
As for other types of plastic, the government has urged Hongkongers to take them to its Community Green Stations (CGSs) operated by external organisations for recycling.
There are seven of these collection points in Shek Mun, Shau Kei Wan, Kowloon Bay, Tin Shui Wai, Sham Shui Po, Tsing Yi and Tuen Mun. Four others in Tai Po, Lantau, Tseung Kwan O and Wan Chai are still in the tendering process or under construction.
The relatively scattered locations of these stations is one reason why 28-year-old legislative assistant Leung Tak-ming and a group of like-minded friends started the first Waste-no-mall community recycling station in Yuen Long in 2016.
Hong Kong produces 340 tonnes of textile waste a day. New mill seeks redress
“We want to provide opportunities for people to recycle items closer to home, especially in older neighbourhoods where there are even fewer collection facilities.”
Between 2015 and June 2018, Community Green Stations collected over 3,000 tonnes of recyclables, only a small fraction of the 5.77 million tonnes collected by the city for recycling from 2015 to 2017.
We’ve tried asking staff where the recyclables go, but they were unable to tell us due to the terms of their contract
Patrick Wong, recycling volunteer
Wong from Tsing Yi also pointed out the stations’ lack of transparency.
“We’ve tried asking staff where the recyclables go, but they were unable to tell us due to the terms of their contract. This means citizens have no way of finding out where their recyclables go,” he says.
In contrast, his team arranges for anyone interested to visit the recycling facilities they use, such as a processing centre in Tsuen Wan.
“It’s not enough to simply tell people to put recyclables where they belong, but we also need to show them where their recyclables end up so they can believe their actions are making a difference,” he says.
His station collects around 60kg over two hours every fortnight, and transport costs are covered by a partnering NGO.
Wong, who is determined to set an example, asks: “If we can collect so many types of recyclables with such limited resources, why can’t the government?”
Volunteer Leung from Yuen Long says that while it is important for people to take responsibility for protecting their communities, there is only so much they can do.
“What we can achieve with education is limited,” he says. “The amount of waste we produce isn’t something we can control. For example, we can’t control the amount of packaging we get with food products, but the government can.”
With a mandatory waste charging scheme on the horizon, the city could be one step closer to its waste reduction target of attaining a per capita daily waste disposal rate 0.8kg or less. In 2017, the average person in Hong Kong dumped 1.45kg of waste every day.
The scheme would charge households and shops using government refuse collection services based on the amount of waste they produce, and is expected to be implemented late next year.
But former legislator Edward Yiu Chung-yim says the authorities are holding the wrong people accountable.
Recycling waste water is in Hong Kong’s interest
“Under the new scheme, consumers will be punished for dumping waste, but manufacturers of the waste will be let off the hook for producing it,” he says. “If the government wants to reduce waste at source, it should hold corporations responsible for their packaging.”
First implemented in 2009, the government’s producer responsibility scheme requires manufacturers, importers, wholesalers, retailers and consumers to shoulder the responsibility for discarding or recycling certain products. But so far it covers only plastic shopping bags and waste electrical and electronic equipment.
Discussions to extend the scheme to glass beverage containers and plastic product containers are still continuing.
The situation in Hong Kong is a far cry from that in Taiwan, where supermarkets and convenience stores have set up least 14,000 drop-off sites for beverage containers, and South Korea, which introduced its beverage container recovery scheme 15 years ago.
Paul Zimmerman, chief executive officer of Designing Hong Kong, a non-profit organisation that aims to protect and enhance the city’s environment, is among a group of recyclers, distributors, NGOs, foundations and institutions exploring ways to reduce and manage single-use beverage packaging waste in the city, including a cash-on-return scheme.
74 per cent of drinks cartons in landfill from Vitasoy – firm ‘must recycle’
“The government has a responsibility to make sure there’s an efficient logistics system, instead of having individual corporations and individuals handle recyclable and reusable materials themselves,” says Zimmerman.
He points out that even sorting the recyclable items that are collected can be difficult, given the tight supply of land.
The government has a responsibility to make sure there’s an efficient logistics system
Paul Zimmerman, Designing Hong Kong
He says: “Once you start sorting, you need space to store the separated materials. Where are we going to do this sorting?”
In 2017, the amount of industrial waste in Hong Kong’s landfills rose by 20 per cent, just as mainland China began banning imported waste, including waste paper, plastics, textile materials and metal slag. Before the ban, those exports ended up on the mainland either directly or through Hong Kong.
The government had partly attributed the increase in industrial waste to “a vibrant local economy”, but former lawmaker Yiu surmises the ban had caused mainland-bound waste to accumulate in Hong Kong, and called on the government to step up preventive measures.
Meanwhile, Zimmerman says he thinks Hong Kong should take a cue from China, and close its border to imported waste: “One way or another, there’s leakage of imported waste into our environment.”
But upon inquiry from the Post, the Environmental Protection Department stressed that it was illegal to bring waste to Hong Kong for disposal.
As the debate over reducing waste and recycling continues, Wong and volunteers across Hong Kong are wasting no time in doing what they can.
“Hong Kong is driven by consumerism,” he says. “When there’s little we can do to reduce waste at source, the next best thing is to recycle it.”