Green and bear it

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 May, 2007, 12:00am

If you think making your flat environmentally friendly means getting rid of your furniture and spending vast amounts on a wind turbine for your balcony, think again. Opening a window, or putting two plastic bottles of water in your toilet's cistern can halve your electricity bill and help save the planet's natural resources without costing you a cent.

Based on government figures, Friends of the Earth calculates that, whereas Hong Kong's population grew 19.9 per cent from 1992 to last year, residential demand for electricity increased 86 per cent. Per capita water consumption is 140,000 litres per annum, the equivalent of flushing your toilet 48 times a day, which a Water Supplies Department spokesman says is 'on the high side'. It compares with 55,000 litres per annum for British households and 91,000 litres for families in Toronto.

'Back in the 1970s, when we had the world energy crisis, Japan launched an energy-saving campaign, but it wasn't until 1995 that Hong Kong set up an energy-saving programme,' says Hahn Chu Hon-keung, environmental affairs manager for Friends of the Earth. 'The government thought economic growth was more important than energy saving.'

Under the Electrical and Mechanical Services Department's (EMSD) Energy Efficiency Scheme for Buildings, of the 1,822 certificates issued to 735 building venues since the scheme began in 1998, 887 have been awarded to 200 new buildings, of which only about 40 are non-government buildings. An EMSD spokesman describes private participation in the scheme as 'not very encouraging [but] private new buildings, especially prestigious commercial buildings, are generally following the Building Energy Codes'.

Wong Kam-sing, chairman of the Board of Local Affairs at the Hong Kong Institute of Architects, says few new developments take advantage of prevailing wind conditions, which can help ventilate flats and reduce reliance on air conditioning. Windows on the opposite sides of a room can cool the space with drafts. Unfortunately, building positioning, high-density housing and the costs associated with installing extra windows means this free natural coolant goes to waste.

'I never turn on the air conditioning in the lounge because I have a balcony so I just open it and a window,' Wong says. 'Sometimes in the summer I'll use a fan. If I don't use the air conditioner my electricity bill is reduced by 50 per cent. It's not the size of the window that's important, it's the positioning.'

Making your home environmentally friendly can cost from as little as a few dollars. Many energy-saving devices (plus a bit of common sense) can save you money in the long term. Cutting shower time from half an hour to 10 minutes will save on water and electricity, and a low- flow showerhead costing about HK$1,200 will reduce consumption further. A dual flush unit for your toilet costs from about HK$800 and can reduce water use from about eight litres per flush to about six litres. Or you can simply put two 500ml plastic bottles of water in the cistern and save a litre every time you flush.

A low-energy light bulb costing about HK$40 will use 25 per cent less energy than a standard tungsten bulb. With a life span of about 8,000 hours that's a saving of more than HK$500 during the bulb's lifetime, according to Britain's National Energy Foundation. Screw an energy-saving bulb into your light fittings and you do the maths.

The belief that his flat was slowly killing him prompted local actor/composer Lowell Lo Kwun-ting to make a lifestyle change. For years, Lo suffered sleepless nights and breathing difficulties, until he discovered he was chemical-sensitive. He traced the source of the chemicals to paint, construction materials, furniture, electrical appliances, cleaning products and bedding in his home.

Today, his flat is fitted with sustainable building materials and environmentally friendly products, all of which can be sourced through his Green Earth Society outlet in Sai Kung. 'It may be three times the cost, but as far as your health is concerned it's a long-term investment,' he says.

Hong Kong's love of luxury building materials such as expensive hardwoods and imported stone has had a major impact on the environment and people's health. Wood varnishes and adhesives contain formaldehyde and some stone construction materials are a source of the radioactive gas radon. Expensive slate bathroom floors and marble kitchen worktops may impress the neighbours, but they emit radon. The Environmental Protection Department says that elevated exposure to the gas and its decay products may increase the incidence of lung cancer. And then there's the impact on the environment.

For guilt-free interiors, consider natural linoleum that can last more than 40 years. A durable and resilient product made from linseed oil, it's non-toxic and comes in a huge selection of colours and patterns. Bamboo and cork also make attractive flooring - just remember to choose a varnish that doesn't contain volatile organic compounds. A hardwood tree of 20cm in circumference takes 60 years to replace, compared with 59 days for bamboo - without the need for replanting. Bamboo also makes excellent countertops, as does paperstone, a composite of recycled paper cashew nut oils and water-based resins. Popular among local designers is Corian, a long-lasting acrylic composite and alternative to stone. Although it can be recut and reused, it's not bio-degradable.

Ignorance is to blame for Hong Kong's huge natural resources bill, says Lo, although he says some energy-saving devices can be expensive, cumbersome and inefficient. The energy-saving fridge in the corner of his shop is bulky and storage space is limited because of its huge insulation panels. The four two-metre by one-metre solar panels on the roof of Lo's flat, which cost about HK$6,000 each, are just enough to power 15 light bulbs, and a wind turbine is more about fun than efficiency, he says.

Hongkongers need to start paying more attention to protecting the environment, says Wong. Homeowners need to learn that sustainable living and protecting their health at home doesn't have to cost a fortune - and that and spending a fortune sometimes can have a detrimental effect.

'I use low energy bulbs in my living room,' Wong says. 'When I have guests over, some say 'Why so humble?''