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My life: Lisa Christensen

The founder of Hong Kong Cleanup talks to Vickie Chan about the highs and lows of her quest to conquer waste

 

GREEN ROOTS I grew up surrounded by spotless, crystal clear, icy cold Canadian water. My first words were, "Baby Lisa go in water!" I loved any form of water, from the ocean to a bath.

While I was growing up, in the 1970s and 80s, Nova Scotia was a leader in environmental practice. It was the first place to introduce combined recycling, compost bins and a plastic bag law. At school, campaigns like "Don't Be a Litter Bug" meant anyone littering was a loser. Sport was another way for me to connect with nature. I attended King's-Edgehill School as a competitive horse rider. Then I was accepted to do an International Baccalaureate (programme) in the south of France. The culture was eco-friendly. Among my peers were Graham Hill, founder of the TreeHugger website, and Rob Stewart, director of the Sharkwater documentary. In 1988, I did my first beach clean-up. After studying economics with marketing in Halifax (Canada), I took a marketing role with World Expeditions, who awarded me an around-the-world ticket in 1995. I visited China because my father was there, launching Walmart. Jogging one morning, I met someone who offered me a position as marketing events manager at (golf resort) Mission Hills. So I moved to Shenzhen. It was exciting and I was close to my family. But I saw mounds of waste and no recycling. The pollution was obvious so, in 1997, I went home. After a few months, Mission Hills offered me a position in Hong Kong.

LIFE'S A BEACH I fell in love with Hong Kong (and found) some of the best beaches in the world, such as Tai Long Wan. But, like others, it was covered in hundreds of kilos of trash. I was swimming in plastic. I had never seen anything as insane as that. I had to do something about it. In 1999, I quit my job and discussed with my father a business plan for an environmentally sound waste-management company. Ecovision would focus on oceans, recycling and waste management.

The same year, my passion project was a beach clean-up. (Local restaurant chain) Jaspas sponsored a junk for 45 volunteers. The event organiser in me shone through, so I considered how to apply myself. Now we have 40,000 volunteers.

IN THE BIN Business wasn't easy; Ecovision was a recycling company that designed and manufactured stainless-steel recycling bins. We had 14 bins in busy locations like Central and Tsim Sha Tsui as well as in some schools. In 2003, (then chief executive) Tung Chee-hwa stated in his policy address that by 2014 our landfills would be full. It seemed like time to focus on waste management. We planned to roll out 1,000 units in shopping malls and MTR stations - we had 150 bins in schools when Sars hit. The government didn't approve us and a large-scale recycling programme was denied. Almost bankrupt, I changed the business model to education and awareness, creating events rather than infrastructure. However, after Sars the city wasn't ready: there were too many hurdles.

DARK PLACES While 2003 was tough for business, 2004 was tough personally. My father was fighting cancer and my partner and I separated. During that dark period I went out a lot. I was disillusioned with the barriers in my life. Realising I was mildly depressed shook me into reality. I questioned if I had the brawn to continue Ecovision alone, feeling especially scared without my father, who helped make it a reality. I decided to make radical changes and heal from the inside out. Gandhi said, "Be the change you want to be in the world", but I wasn't living the way I used to - sustainably - so I stopped drinking. To make a difference, I had to stop being pulled into personal problems. After that, everything worked. The right people showed up in my life, like Nissa Marion, my best friend, who joined Ecovision in 2007. Attracting a great team, the finances flowed.

MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE The last several years we've grown and lobbied, especially about plastic. The plastic bag tax reduced usage by about 80 per cent in participating companies but plastic is still one of our biggest problems - we use 1,368,000 plastic bottles (in Hong Kong) a year. Very little is recycled. Tap water is a thousand times cheaper and Hong Kong water is fine if your pipes are clean. Or buy a filter jug instead of bottled water. I'm inspired by current awareness and how it's creating action. Responsibility stretches past recycling, to consciously buying life-long reusable products. We just launched Dopper, a social enterprise selling reusable, safe plastic bottles. I hope the next generation will think we were crazy for inventing single-use items. Attending global conferences and meeting like-minded people helps Ecovision grow. We've joined forces with global movements like Ocean Conservancy, which runs the International Coastal Cleanup. Hong Kong came fourth out of 97 countries last year, with a total of 23,802 volunteers cleaning 105,507kg of trash from beaches. While Hong Kong Cleanup now includes parks and country spaces, I hope it becomes redundant.

DIRTY TRICKS In the long term, our philosophy needs to change. Our "pick up after me" society doesn't expect to be responsible for waste. It's strange that when you're eating out of a packet it's fine, but when you've finished, it's "dirty". Our waste can be a resource. Hong Kong should consider a zero-waste policy, meaning a redesign of products and packaging so that reuse is standard and waste is minimal. But without legislation, mainstream companies won't comply. We have one of the most intelligent, world-educated and wealthy societies; why not take a stand as world leaders, as Asia's greenest city?

 

This year's Hong Kong Cleanup will take place between September 21 and November 1. For more details and registration, visit www.hkcleanup.org.

 

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