Food-waste compost project could be just a waste of time

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 February, 2008, 12:00am

City does not have enough farms to use 'green' fertiliser

Part of Hong Kong's mountain of food waste will be composted in a pilot scheme starting this year, but already there are fears of too little demand for the product.

Environment officials admit the city's minuscule farming activities do not offer much of a market for the 'green' fertiliser to be produced at a trial plant in Kowloon Bay this year and at a permanent facility at Siu Ho Wan, on Lantau, from 2013.

And environmentalists say the export market is limited, particularly on the mainland, because of Hong Kong's higher production costs.

The Kowloon Bay plant will process about two to four tonnes of waste a day when it starts operating mid-year, while the Siu Ho Wan plant will be able to handle a maximum 200 tonnes a day - a tiny fraction of the 3,000 tonnes of food waste generated every day. The process produces about half a tonne of compost from a tonne of waste.

According to the latest Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department figures, Hong Kong has just 318 hectares of working farmland, including 105 organic vegetable farms covering 41 hectares, equal to about two Victoria Parks.

The Environmental Protection Department has admitted this is not enough to absorb even the compost from the limited amount of waste to be processed.

'As agriculture is not flourishing, it is almost impossible for farms to use all the food-waste compost,' a spokesman said.

But he said the compost 'could be applied to golf courses and used for landscaping'.

Large corporations such as Disneyland and the Airport Authority already conduct small-scale food-waste-recycling programmes, but the compost is mainly used for landscaping works on their own premises.

Angus Ho Hon-wai, executive director of the environmental group Greeners Action, said the Siu Ho Wan plant would process only a fraction of the total food waste and the government had no firm plan to reduce waste before its completion.

The government has not ruled out building larger compost plants.

But Baptist University biology professor Wong Woon-chung, who participated in the Kowloon Bay project, described the future of food waste composting in Hong Kong as a 'headache'.

'Excess compost would be better exported, but high operating costs could make the compost less competitive compared to places like the mainland,' he said.

He said food waste recycling would fail unless the government offered financial incentives to attract investment to produce higher- quality compost.

The government has been trying measures to divert recyclable refuse away from its shrinking landfills, including 'polluter pays' charges and landfill disposal bans.

But Mr Ho said the city was far behind Asian countries like Japan, South Korea and places like Taiwan, which had implemented food-waste recycling much earlier and had achieved tangible results.

According to Environmental Protection Department data from 2006, about 80 per cent of food waste comes from households.

However, collecting domestic food waste is not easy.

'Residents have to be educated on why they have to recycle food waste and how to do it,' Professor Wong said.

Housewife Wu Chui-lin, 52, said she would recycle food waste if her building was provided with bins but she would be 'too lazy to do it if the bins are far away'.