Hong Kong’s shameful recycling efforts: the numbers don’t lie

Peter Kammerer says a recycling rate of 35 per cent may seem decent, but in fact fully 98 per cent of the city’s recycled solid waste is exported to the mainland and elsewhere. With the mainland stopping imports of ‘foreign garbage’, Hong Kong must get to grips with its waste problem

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 September, 2017, 12:50pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 September, 2017, 1:22pm

A lot of the government’s claims about recycling would seem to be a sham. Those barges full of waste paper that the mainland doesn’t want any more are proof of how rubbery the numbers have been.

The same presumably goes for plastics, glass, food and whatever else we throw away. Until the authorities are serious about getting us to reduce waste, Hong Kong will stand shamefully among those places which care little for themselves or the world around them.

There’s an easy statistic to prove this. The Environmental Protection Department in its 2015 recycling figures, the latest available, says 35 per cent of the annual 5.7 million tonnes of waste from household, commercial and industrial sources is recycled and of that, 44 per cent is paper.

But there aren’t any paper recycling or manufacturing plants in Hong Kong. Those barges that aren’t going anywhere now that Beijing has removed its welcome mat tell the story; we don’t recycle paper, we just ship it to someone else and what they do with it is up to them.

Paper jam in Hong Kong as mainland China tightens requirements on waste imports

We don’t ask, so don’t know, and proudly mark it down as “recycled”. Perhaps so-called recyclers are taking government subsidies, pocketing them as profit and then dumping or burning our waste.

Beijing’s decision follows on from 2013’s Operation Green Fence and other measures since to crack down on the global importation of low-grade waste to the Chinese mainland.

We don’t ask, so don’t know, and proudly mark it down as ‘recycled’

By the end of the year, also excluded from reprocessing will be 24 types of “foreign garbage” now considered harmful to the environment and public health. Paper and plastics, which together account for 43 per cent of Hong Kong’s waste and 49 per cent of what we claim is recycled, are on the list.

About 2.03 million tonnes of Hong Kong’s municipal solid waste was determined to have been recycled in 2015. Of it, 98 per cent was sent to the mainland and elsewhere. The remainder was recycled locally, showing how formative our local industry is and the challenge ahead now that Beijing considers the rubbish we have been sending its way is – well, nothing but rubbish.

I used to assiduously wash and set aside plastic bottles and when I had a bagful, took them to the nearest government coloured recycling bins. The bag often had to be left beside the brown bin for plastics, which was always overflowing, although the blue one for cardboard and paper and the yellow for aluminium cans were empty.

What Hong Kong needs to do to recycle more: sort waste properly and see it as a chance to make money, not a problem

Asking around quickly gave me answers; there’s money to be made from cans and paper, but none from plastic bottles, which are cheaper to produce new than make from recyclable pellets.

The blue and yellow bins were being emptied before the government contractors could get to them by the elderly, the jobless and the opportunists. The plastic bottles were most likely mixed with other rubbish and put into landfills.

Watch: Can Hong Kong consumers say ‘no’ to plastic?

Tiny bits of plastic have infiltrated most tap water around the world, study reveals

A third of our waste is unwanted food; we don’t have an agriculture industry like Taiwan, so can’t do as happens there and turn it into compost or food for farm animals. So, it goes straight into landfills. As does most of our plastic, glass – which is also viewed as barely worth recycling – and paper that is too spoiled for export. It’s nothing to crow about or pat ourselves on the back for.

The introduction in 2019 of a charge for waste may make a change; the monthly payment per household is expected to be about HK$51. But there’s nothing innovative in that, nor, the wealthier society gets, is it likely to make much of a change.

How can Hongkongers reduce city’s food waste mountain?

We need strong and effective recycling policies, such as laws on source separation of waste, deposit return systems for plastic and glass bottles like those in wide use elsewhere, rules on packaging and effective treatment of food scraps.

Until then, our beaches will continue to be awash in home-grown garbage and those making an effort to recycle will be all but wasting their time and effort.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post