Paint the town green

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 January, 2007, 12:00am

AS THE CITY gears up for its next round of festivities, property managers are busy replacing Christmas decorations with those for Lunar New Year. But although Chinese zodiac signs are a traditional motif for the celebrations, don't expect to see the animal symbols featured at the IFC. Such themes are ruled out by the team running the city's tallest high-rise, not because of any fung shui considerations but out of environmental concerns.

'If we went for a zodiac-based design, we wouldn't be able to use the ornaments again until the sign comes up in the next cycle of the Chinese horoscope,' says Sonia Lui Sze-wan, marketing manager of International Finance Centre Management.

It wasn't long ago that shopping complexes sought to outdo each other with the most extravagant seasonal decorations. In the past couple of years, however, growing eco-awareness coupled with greater prudence after the economic downturn have started to change mindsets. For instance, Opus Two Entertainment, which specialises in displays for commercial premises, decorated the APM mall in Kwun Tong for Christmas with ornaments made from more eco-friendly paper and straw.

Concern has been growing among the public and in government of the need for lifestyle changes if we want a clean and safe environment. More recently, environment officials have warned particularly against overuse of plastic and polystyrene, which won't break down in the city's inundated landfills and form cancer-causing dioxins if incinerated.

Opus Two's project director, Diana Gee Shuk-yin, says property managers aren't just paying lip service to greater emphasis on recycling and green factors. 'About 10 years ago, some shopping malls still bragged about importing the tallest pine from the US for its Christmas display. But we don't hear that any more.'

Now, more than 90 per cent of shopping malls use artificial trees, holly and decorative foliage that can be dismantled, stored and reused for another three to five years, Gee says. With advances in material technology, fake firs often pass for the real thing, and adding a touch of essential oil lends an air of authenticity.

Many have also trimmed their use of non-biodegradable material, and some owners go so far as to draw up a checklist to ensure that each component is collected for storage after the display is over, Gee says.

Opus Two will reduce waste at the Mega Mall in Tai Po by transforming Santa's lodge into a pigpen to greet the coming Year of the Pig.

At the IFC, traditional embroidery has been chosen as the decorative theme for this Lunar New Year. But Lui and her team are also looking to the future: 80 per cent of the components and ornaments can be reconfigured into something completely different for other displays. 'We ask our contractors to plan their decorative themes for at least two years by reusing the same material as much as possible,' Lui says.

Although property managers now try to recycle their festive material, they must also come up with a fresh look to get shoppers' attention every year.

The 11.5 metre Christmas tree that graced the IFC Mall last month was in its third winter, so Lui's team had to give it a makeover. 'We changed the ornaments and ribbons on the tree to give it a facelift,' she says.

However, helping to save the environment comes at a price. Reusable material is often more expensive, there's added storage cost, and extra time and manpower to deal with the ornaments.

Lui estimates that her costs are about 20 per cent higher, mainly from renting storage space and extra craftsmanship to touch up the stock.

For Gee, the material and labour costs have almost doubled, as has the time for putting up the decorations. 'Durable materials such as fibreglass, wood and better quality metal are more expensive,' she says. 'We also take twice as much time and labour to unload and dismantle the ornaments, carefully pack them in cartons before sending them to a warehouse. Many workers grumble that we're giving them extra work.'

Props deemed to be too worn-out still wind up in the landfills, but there are a couple of alternatives. Some stock is given away to interested tenants, or sold to other commercial complexes in the region. Some landlords rotate the displays between their properties.

Irene Lo Man-chi, an associate professor of civil engineering at the University of Science and Technology, says the weaker economy has prompted businesses to adopt less wasteful habits, which benefits the environment.

Green groups such as Friends of the Earth agree that local businesses are making progress on green issues, but maintain that there's room for improvement. There hasn't been any attempt to gauge how much festive waste has been reduced, and most owners rely on contractors, they say.

'While shopping malls try to cut down on waste for indoor decorations, we've noticed far greater use of outdoor lighting displays this year,' says Friends of the Earth spokesman, Chu Hon-keung. 'This uses more energy and contributes to global warming, which we're not happy about.'

What of quasi-official organisations such as the Hong Kong Tourism Board? Some may expect statutory bodies to set an example in promoting eco-friendly practices. But the board, which has put up the Santa's Town centrepiece in Statue Square for the past five years, says it isn't sure where the props go once the display is over.

It's left to the contractor to decide if components are reused or dumped, a spokesman says. The board also doesn't provide space to store props for reuse, although parts of the recent Central display had been built with used parts, including the base of the Christmas tree and the Snowy Chapel.

The Tourism Board's response draws sharp criticism. 'Instead of putting up extravagant decorations for one-off festive displays, the board should take the lead in promoting sustainable development by tracking down the material so that it can be reused,' Chu says.

'Hong Kong remains about a decade behind Japan, North America and Europe in terms of embracing eco-friendliness,' Lo says. 'Simple practices such as separating household waste for recycling have become a habit in those countries, but that's not common here.'

One custom many Chinese business people won't compromise on is to use fake foliage in Lunar New Year displays, because live plants are deemed to improve the energy flow of the venue. Blossoming peach trees are traditionally symbols of good fortune, as are tangerines, orchids, chrysanthemums and bamboo. Some businesspeople even hire fung shui masters to pick an auspicious time for delivering such plants to their offices.

The IFC defends its annual practice of putting up a king-sized blossoming peach as making the most of the tree. 'Our farmer says the decorative peach normally deteriorates after seven or eight years,' Lui says.

'It will die soon even if we don't cut it down. So why not let the auspicious tree become the centre of attention in its final stage?'