The zero-waste challenge in Hong Kong: we try to live plastic-free for a week
With alarming quantities of plastic waste piling up in Hong Kong’s landfills, we see if it is possible to source all your daily necessities in an environmentally conscious way
It’s not easy to avoid plastic in Hong Kong. From umbrella sleeves to the shrink-wrap clinging to everything from fresh food to furniture deliveries, plastic is the universal packaging solution – and streets are littered with polystyrene.
Plastic may be cheap, convenient, even hygienic, but its disposal has potentially disastrous ramifications for the city’s marine life, beaches, rivers and trails. More than 2,000 tonnes of plastic is dumped daily, based on Environmental Protection Department figures from 2015. It’s a figure likely to remain stubbornly high, given that many Hongkongers don’t see the point in separating waste for recycling amid reports that it all ends up in the same landfill anyway.
With few government incentives for manufacturers or consumers to reduce waste, reuse packaging and recycle, the onus is on caring consumers to support alternatives. Some eco-warriors have completely shunned plastic, and I decided to try to follow their lead for a week to see if it was possible in Hong Kong.
Living on Hong Kong Island, with a wide choice of shops and markets, and recycling facilities nearby, I thought it would be easier living plastic-free there than for someone in a New Territories village.
But inner city living comes with its own challenges: the frantic pace, lack of time and cramped apartments can make sorting rubbish or tracking down vegetables that aren’t plastic-wrapped an exhausting ordeal, especially after a long commute.
Eco-minded Hannah Chung, who posts Hong Kong waste reduction tips on Instagram under the heading The Zero Waste Challenge, is one of a growing number of consumers trying to minimise her waste footprint. Her social media feed is full of the frustrations and discoveries involved in trying to live responsibly in a city that’s not renowned for its green credentials.
Chung looks for waste-free alternatives, from cosmetics to household cleaning. “I don’t use washing up liquid. I use baking soda and bars of soap, but previously I used tea seed powder and vinegar. It worked, but it took two or three times as long,” she said in an interview last year.
My goal was to go a week without throwing any plastic in the bin. Here is how the seven days unfolded.
In preparation, I had bought as much fresh fruit and veg from the wet market as I could carry – most of the produce at local stalls is sold loose.
I eat a banana for breakfast and take pasta leftovers for lunch in a glass lunchbox. I drink coffee out of a mug at work. So far, so good.
After work, I go running, and need a fast food fix after exercising. We’re lucky to have a staff canteen, so I order tofu, rice and greens and ask for the meal to be served in my lunchbox. I hit the track and sip from a reusable flask of water. When I get home, I heat up my takeaway food. My speedy, waste-free dinner is served.
I’m feeling confident after day one of the challenge. I went a whole day throwing only a banana peel in the bin. I feel optimistic for the rest of the week.
Another banana for breakfast and more pasta leftovers in the lunchbox. The day is going almost identically to Monday. It’s the tail end of Typhoon Merbok and the streets around the city are strewn with disposable umbrella sleeves – stuck in drains and caught in trees.
I want to see if it’s possible to make a waste-free pad Thai. Armed with a tote bag full of lidded boxes, I visit the shops to buy fresh noodles, tofu and bean sprouts and ask sellers to weigh them into the boxes instead of the usual plastic bags. I throw green beans, onions, peppers, mushrooms and a carrot loose into my shopping bag.
Peanuts are a problem. I’m sure there are places you can buy them loose, but time is running out and I’m getting hungry, so I buy a tiny, cellophane-wrapped bag. I feel guilty, but at least it’s not one of those heavy duty silver plastic bags of peanuts found in supermarkets.
Plans start to go awry when I get to the supermarket. Without thinking, I grab a pile of bags of reduced-price crisps. By the time I realised my faux pas, it was too late.
Breakfast is a banana smoothie. Milk is one of the biggest challenges to replace, as the cartons are made with plastic-coated paper which can’t be recycled. The slightly greener alternative is to go for the Kowloon Dairy milk in glass bottles, which can then be returned to the company via the shop you bought it from. The problem is the bottles are too tiny to be practical for families or someone who drinks milk every day.
Going zero-plastic in Hong Kong probably means giving up buying milk which, with all that methane cows give off, is probably a better deal for the planet anyway.
That night, I have friends over and they want a veggie lasagna. Usually, I’d use pre-packaged pasta sheets, but they’re a no-go in my plastic-free week. So I decide to make my own. Three ingredients: eggs, flour, salt. (So simple, so much hassle. Never again!). I use fresh tomatoes instead of tinned tomatoes and the result is one of the best lasagnas I’ve ever made.
Leftover veggie lasagna for lunch. Fruit for snacks. Being vegetarian, I rely on rice, and pulses such as chickpeas, for nutrients, but it’s hard to find them unpackaged. Thanks to a tip from Hannah,
I head to the Graham Street market in Central and find stalls selling pulses and grains in big sacks. It also works out cheaper than buying them pre-packaged. A double win.
I use my lentils to make a cauliflower curry, which I wrap in home-made tortillas for dinner. I have enough leftovers to last several days. The markets are also one of the few places to find unpackaged eggs.
I buy a vacuum cleaner, which comes in a cardboard box with lots of completely unnecessary plastic bags for such a small appliance. The arm snaps off a pair of sunglasses and, with no way to fix them, they end up in the bin. I try to make bread but it fails so badly that I go out and buy a loaf at the supermarket. More plastic.
I watch the checkout staff give out separate produce bags for carrots, a carton of milk, cheese, and frozen meals. It’s odd that there’s no charge for these bags, unlike the larger plastic shopping bags which cost 50 cents (6 US cents). It makes everything I’m doing feel pointless.
We head to the beach for brunch and I finally get to use my metal straw, the ultimate weapon of the plastic warrior, for a smoothie. Dinner is a salad with roast vegetables. However, the market has run out of salad and I can’t find any unpackaged leaves in any of the shops. Instead, I go for one of those overpriced, boxed salads from a supermarket. So much green guilt.
Another challenge for a plastic-conscious lifestyle is toilet paper: all the brands found in supermarkets individually wrap each roll in thin plastic cellophane that’s instantly discarded when the pack is unwrapped, posing yet another environmental quandary.
The final day of the challenge involves preparing lunches and snacks for the following week to make sure I’ll be able to stick to my green goals. A worn-out plastic toothbrush gets repurposed as a tile cleaner and replaced by a bamboo version, which will biodegrade when discarded. I hadn’t needed to replace any cosmetics all week but there are several companies, such as Lush, which specialise in sustainable packaging.
Verdict: As an experiment, a week was a good indicator of the challenges Hong Kong faces in trying to cut back on plastic. It’s easy to head down to the wet market with a reusable bag, but making a dent in plastic waste can mean going the extra mile for alternatives.