Vanishing rubbish bins and rotten attitudes: Hong Kong’s struggle to stay clean

Yonden Lhatoo despairs at the city’s garbage problem, suggesting that people are educated enough to be civic-minded, but just have a rotten attitude

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 June, 2016, 5:19pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 June, 2016, 6:13pm

“My kingdom for a bin!” a friend of mine exclaimed in mock-Shakespearean despair, as we walked down the length of a popular street in Mong Kok, looking for a receptacle to dump a leaking coffee cup she was desperate to get rid of.

We finally found a rubbish bin after walking quite a distance, dripping java on the pavement all the way. And it presented another unnecessary dilemma, because the bin was chock-full of rubbish, and people had dumped all kinds of filth around it.

All this because the government, with the backing of environmental groups, has decided there are too many rubbish bins in Hong Kong. The logic being applied here is that if there’s no place to throw your trash, the streets will be cleaner because you’ll be forced to take it home.

Next week, the government will deploy the first batch of newly designed bins that have smaller openings for depositing waste. The idea is to dissuade people from cramming them with oversized packages. The new bins will feature bigger notices warning the public “not to discard refuse at the side or on top of litter containers and to dispose of bagged refuse properly at refuse collection points”.

What’s more, the government may further reduce the number of rubbish bins across the city, having already removed 15 per cent of them over the past 1½ years. That amounts to 3,100 bins, which is the equivalent of Taipei’s entire arsenal of bins. Singapore and Seoul also make us look like we have a bin fetish.

The bin-free drive can be linked to the impending household waste charging scheme in a way that doesn’t reflect well on Hongkongers. The government is concerned that when it starts charging people for the rubbish they produce daily at home, many of them will start dumping bagfuls at the nearest street bin.

If the Taiwanese, Singaporeans, Koreans and Japanese (who take it to Stepford Wives extremes) can get a grip on their garbage, why not Hongkongers, right? Wrong.

Has anyone stopped to consider that people in this city are just a completely different breed when it comes to civic-mindedness? They don’t care. I watched, in horrid fascination, a woman loudly inhaling instant noodles on a minibus the other day, and thought of how the government expected her to dutifully take the container and plastic bag home to put them into a garbage bag, for which she would pay an environmental levy like a good citizen. Yeah right. She left them on the bus, by the way.

Look at the dustbins around the city. Even when they’re not overflowing, people would rather chuck their rubbish at the bins than in them. And you want to put smaller mouths on the bins to solve the problem?

The truth is harsh. Hong Kong is not a cesspool only because we pay an army of cleaners to do the dirty work. Civic sense is for the birds here. And spare me the clichés about educating people.

Have you watched Hongkongers on holiday in cities that take cleanliness very seriously? We’re model tourists. Oh, we’re educated alright, and on our best behaviour. It’s only when we return home that we can’t be bothered. It just boils down to a rotten attitude.

Nothing short of severe penalties and fierce enforcement will work. And you can’t do that in a city where everything is instantly politicised with placard-waving protests about freedom. What a mess.

I have a question for Hong Kong’s No 2 environment chief, Christine Loh Kung-wai, the silent bureaucrat who once used to be an outspoken crusader in such matters: who are you and what have you done to Christine Loh?

Yonden Lhatoo is a senior editor at the Post