Mooncake boxes that return to earth: Hong Kong caterer introduces biodegradable packaging

Caterers are heeding calls to keep the environment in mind in their packaging of the delicacy. One has even introduced biodegradable boxes

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 August, 2014, 3:38am
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 August, 2014, 3:38am

On a warm autumn night each September, tens of thousands of people gather to gaze romantically at the moon - as a mountain of rubbish piles up.

Tonnes of mooncake tins, plastic wrappers, paper lanterns, candle residue and discarded glow sticks are among the debris discarded by revellers during one of Hong Kong's most popular festivals.

Much of the debris dumped during the Mid-Autumn Festival, such as metal mooncake packaging, isn't biodegradable and masses in landfills, adding to Hong Kong's notorious waste problem.

But some mooncake makers, heeding long-standing calls from green groups, are trying to make a difference.

This year the catering giant Maxim's is selling some 250,000 boxes of mooncakes - about a third of its output - packaged in material made from bagasse, the fibrous remnants of sugar cane after the juice has been squeezed from it.

Martin Lee, Maxim's Caterers general manager for Chinese restaurants and branded products, said the material decomposed in just four months.

"If the response from our customers is good, we may try to push for more next season," he said.

The bagasse boxes, which feature cover designs by mainland-based local artist Siu Hak, are available in stores for purchase with vouchers.

Other mooncake makers have stepped up similar efforts in recent years.

Taipan, which is known for its signature snowy mooncakes, tries to use as little packaging as possible although it continues to use metal boxes.

Its spokesman said yesterday that it followed recommendations from the Environmental Protection Department but continued to use metal as its products required refrigeration.

Wing Wah also continues to use metal packaging but no longer issues disposable cutlery to customers.

Environmental group Green Sense had doubts about the benefits of biodegradable packaging. "It doesn't factor in the airtight nature of the Hong Kong landfills," project manager Gabrielle Ho Ka-po said. "Without air, water and microbes, it will take years even for organic materials to decompose in landfill conditions."

According to a 2013 survey by Green Power, 1.8 million mooncakes and about a million cake boxes were discarded the previous year.

Customers can do their bit by disposing of the packages and unwanted cakes properly.

Lee said stores would not take back the bagasse boxes for recycling but buyers could easily fold and discard the thin boxes into regular tricolor recycling bins.

"We encourage our customers to recycle these boxes," Lee said.

"We do not rule out extending this type of packaging to other products in the future."

Ho called for makers to stick to one material in their packaging rather than combining them - such as paper with plastic - to make recycling easier.