Hong Kong's woeful recycling efforts a result of mistrust in the system and lack of government support for the industry

Doug Woodring blames government inertia and mistrust of the system for our woeful recycling rates

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 September, 2015, 4:04pm
UPDATED : Friday, 18 September, 2015, 4:04pm

Hong Kong's system of waste management and resource recovery is ill-suited for our city, which has the embarrassing title of being one of the highest per capita waste producers in the world. The current waste system relies on just one option - burying our excesses in landfills, while relying on an unorganised community of cleaners, and elderly and small-scale entrepreneurs who hunt and gather paper, cardboard, metals and other items that might be aggregated for sale to China.

This system has worked in the past because there was enough landfill space and we could simply keep filling "holes" in the ground, as long as waste was quickly gathered from our streets and properties. The value of these resources was never seemingly considered in the quest for timely removal.

We now create over 9,000 tonnes of waste per day, with more than a third in the form of organic and food waste. The solution for the future is to send 3,000 tonnes per day to an incinerator, leaving another 6,000 tonnes to be dealt with in the "old-fashioned way" via landfills, which would still create a significant stress on the waste infrastructure.

Organic waste has value, as do virtually all of the other materials, including plastic, but we simply do not have the facilities, technology or even the mindset to handle this material properly. This is because the government has been afraid to support "industry" due to its "laissez-faire" policy. Such a hands-off approach never works with environmental improvements needed for social benefit.

Recycling is one area which has failed, and is failing, in lieu of what should be a moral obligation to the public to provide quality services. We can, and should, be one of the most efficient recycling populations in the world, because we live and work vertically - meaning collection from one location should result in high volumes of material being recovered.

Without trust in the system, unless fines and penalties are involved, there is little hope for widespread community engagement to solve our waste problems

Recycling requires scale to be effective, particularly for plastic, because of its light weight and disproportionate volume. Many rigid products and packaging do not easily compress, creating large waste streams filled with air, yet contained in a material that takes decades or centuries to degrade.

Many argue there is no market for plastic waste, but that is because there are no facilities in Hong Kong to harness it in the right way, at scale, where different types can be sorted, ground, cleaned and resold as a commodity to countries which have industries that can use this valuable resource. One of the main reasons for this is because the recycling and collection system in Hong Kong is inadequate and unmotivating for the public, creating a sense of distrust and an assumption that the system is broken, or does not exist.

Without trust in the system, unless fines and penalties are involved, there is little hope for widespread community engagement to solve our waste problems.

The government relies on a small number of non-profit organisations to handle most of the recycling. These NGOs, however, cannot handle the volume of recycling material this city is producing, because of the poor level of support, equipment and capacity they get from the government.

Yet we are led to believe that it is "good" for our community that this low-volume and underfunded sector can handle our city's needs. The non-governmental organisations end up hauling material at no cost from companies which are too cheap to pay for proper recycling programmes, while we believe the propaganda that these non-profits can make money from selling the material they collect. Shame on the city for allowing this issue to fester, and for this sad societal misdirection to continue to be propagated.

The dynamics will change greatly if the waste charging scheme is implemented as people try to avoid being charged, but we still do not have a system to handle the volume of resources when people finally start sorting all their waste properly.

Currently, we have small three-coloured bins at the bottom of buildings or on the streets, but even a child could tell you that the volume of material from one tall building could never fit into these small bins. Our domestic recycling rate, at 14 per cent, is one of the lowest among big cities, partly because of this mismatch in size, and because of the lack of trust that recycling is being taken seriously when the public often witnesses cleaners dumping all materials into black bags.

This is exacerbated at public beaches, with their lines of rubbish bins and recycling bins largely hidden out of sight. The ratio of 10 rubbish bins to one recycling bin should be reversed, particularly as people mostly take plastic bottles and packaging to the beach, all of which could be recycled if not contaminated with food waste. This lack of care about recycling at beaches managed by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department does nothing to build trust for the Environmental Protection Department's efforts to care for the environment with its "Clean Shorelines" campaign.

We have a waste problem, and an old, outdated system where trust has broken down. If the goal of the government is to improve our low recycling rates, a lot of new, genuine effort needs to be put into the creation of a dynamic recovery process, which includes support for the industry itself. This is not something to be embarrassed about - having a poor system is.

There are big opportunities for job creation, innovation, technology advancement and community cooperation if trust is restored in the recycling system. But let's do it the right way, not with piecemeal efforts that could not possibly handle the volumes we currently generate.

Doug Woodring is co-founder of the Ocean Recovery Alliance/Plastic Disclosure Project