Lizette Smook fell in love with Kai Tak Airport when she came to the city from South Africa on a buying trip 17 years ago. She engineered her career so that she could get a post here and had a successful career working for, among others, Nike and Next. She was known in the corporate world for her technology know-how but by 2007 felt that something was lacking and that she’d like to strike out on her own. She was appalled by the waste in the fashion industry, and wanted to create a company that created products that were good for our health and made with biodegradable products.
Smook founded her company, Innovasions, and introduced dinner plates made from rice husks – they’re microwave safe and far better for you, she emphasiSes, than Melamine or polystyrene. “I was determined to get plastic out of the food chain, and at the same time to get companies to rethink their [carbon] footprint.”
Smook found it bizarre how recently with the Melamine in baby milk powder scandal on the mainland there was widespread concern about the poisonous affects on children “and yet people eat on it and cook with it every day, so what does that do to our health long term?” And don’t get her started on the detrimental effects of polystyrene not only to our health but also the poisons that it will create in our landfills and leaking into reservoirs.
It was a tough start for Smook. The economic downturn hit shortly after she set up the business, but then Shangri-La Hotels decided to take Melamine out of their canteen. “This was a turning point for Innovasions,” says Smook, as she went on to supply dinner services for staff canteens at many of their hotels.
For Maxims, Smook, who has a science background, created takeaway biodegradable boxes made out of bagasse, the fibre from sugar cane, “which is usually burnt in Southeast Asia, putting loads of carbon into the air”. Smook also works with the Hospital Authority and one of the hospitals has now replaced its plastic trays with ones made with wheat straw.
“This concern of mine,” she says, “does not come from tree hugging, this comes from a real concern about health, about what we are doing to ourselves. We have huge increases in cancer and asthma and we are not connecting the dots. Our health is all we have.
“We are very innocent, believing that our governments are taking care of us. We have this incredible subconscious trust that anything we buy is ok, that it’s safe. It’s not. There needs to be a lot more education on billboards in MTR stations.”
Smook believes that there needs to be more company responsibility for waste, but also easier ways for people to get money back to encourage them to recycle. “If you go to Switzerland or the United States there are actually machines where you feed your bottles [glass or plastic] in and the waste is separated and the cash comes out. If ParknShop or Lan Kwai Fong had a dispenser like that, imagine how many kids and people would do that. We have to change the way we think. Maybe Hong Kong will wake up soon.”
Technology is always evolving, says Snook. These days you can take existing plastic, and by putting additives in it, it will become biodegradable. The Lan Kwai Fong Association are now buying bags from Innovasions “that will not stay in landfills for 400 years, they will be gone in 18 months”.
Four English Schools Foundation schools are also using the bags, and Smook hopes it will take off throughout the foundation. Hopewell Holdings are buying biodegradable umbrella bags from Smook – “think how many plastic bags are used for umbrellas throughout Hong Kong when it rains” and usually for one use only, so at least these will break down.
The tableware can be used for years, and then when the dishes and cutting boards made of the skin of rice husks, bound with bio-resin and heat-compressed, are finally thrown away, the heat and the bacteria will break the materials down – a compost effect.
Smook also uses bamboo fibres to make fabric for bed sheets. (Bamboo only requires a third of the water needed to grow cotton.) She also makes airline blankets made out of recycled water bottles, and towels made out of organic cotton and recycled plastic bottles.
The entrepreneur is confident Hongkongers can change their mindset. One example, she says, is a meal delivery company that manages to save 80 per cent of its disposable cutlery simply by asking the customer if they are eating the meal at home. “We all have that drawer at home filled with unused wooden chopsticks, plastic forks and napkins,” says Smook.
“We can change Hong Kong, we can make it better,” says Smook, though perhaps it will be changes in weather pattern creating havoc that will finally persuade people.