Green activist’s crystal clear aim to solve Hong Kong’s glass recycling problem, one bottle at a time
April Lai, who started NGO Green Glass Green in 2010, leads glass collection sessions in a bid to clean up the city
Environmental campaigner April Lai likes to start her day early.
On some days, it can be as early as 4.30am, the time the 50-year-old gets up to travel from her home in Tai Po to lead her weekly glass collection project in Wan Chai.
Watch: Green Glass Green solving Hong Kong’s glass recycling problem one bottle at a time
Though she is now unwavering in her commitment to Green Glass Green, an NGO she founded in June 2010 which spearheaded glass recycling in Hong Kong, the mother of one said she had started it almost “by accident”.
“[Around that time], we had observed some glass being dumped in a landfill, and we felt that was not reasonable,” she said. “So we wanted to do something to change the scenario by stepping in to tell Hong Kong people that glass has a value and glass is recyclable.”
Lai leads weekly volunteer sessions to collect glass across the city, including in areas such as Wan Chai, Central, Stanley, Shek O and Prince Edward. She is currently heading and promoting newer projects in Ap Lei Chau and Aberdeen. For each one, she has to gain permission from the district council to install padlocked collection bins in alleyways. About 30 bins of glass are collected during an average session.
The city’s glass recycling efforts have seen massive improvements since 2009, when just one in 100 bottles was recycled. In 2014, the number reached one in 10 bottles. Lai predicts the figure will be higher once the government releases new statistics.
About 275 tonnes of glass bottles are used in Hong Kong every day. Lai said she generally remains frustrated by the lack of recycling in the city.
“I feel very bad about that,” she said. “Hong Kong is an Asian city – why are we so backward in making Hong Kong a greener city? We really want to build up a greener Hong Kong.”
Lai, who moved to Hong Kong from Macau at the age of seven, said she believes the mainland, Taiwan, Japan and the Philippines are all ahead of Hong Kong in terms of their recycling levels and strategies. She also said she particularly likes the recycling models adopted by Germany and Switzerland.
A 2013 report by the Hong Kong government’s Environmental Protection Department predicted that all of the landfill sites in the New Territories will be full by 2019.
The same report found Hongkongers produce 1.36kg of waste per day – significantly more than residents in Tokyo, who produce 0.77kg.
The government has set a target to reduce this to 0.8kg per day by 2022.
But the city’s environmental campaigners also face an uphill battle to win over hearts and minds, as many Hongkongers remain sceptical about how much recycled waste actually ends up at a recycling plant.
In 2013, the South China Morning Post filmed government contract workers mixing rubbish with recyclable material, which then ended up in landfills.
But Lai said she remains committed to the cause of cleaning up Hong Kong, one bottle at a time.
“In Hong Kong, we are too capitalist and too consumerist,” Lai said. “We think we need something, and after using it, we throw it away. We need to change our mindset and respect our natural resources and not take things for granted. They are limited in supply.”
Green Glass Green, which is supported by the Hong Kong Dumper Truck Drivers Association and the Environment and Conservation Fund, is helped by between 20 and 30 volunteers for each clean-up session, but the turnover rate is high.
The NGO has developed strong relationships with scores of bars and restaurants in the last six years by going door to door at these establishments.
The group relies on the support of businesses for significant amounts of glass to be recycled beyond just households, but not all of them want to participate in recycling activities.
“The variation is pretty huge,” she said. “Some bar owners are very cooperative. They are happy to take part in the project. Some of them even actively approach us.
“But some of the restaurants and bar operators are very hesitant to be engaged. They feel it is not their business, because in Hong Kong there are no rules and regulations asking them to recycle their glass bottles. And we don’t give them any incentives.”
Lai believes that putting in more effort to educate Hongkongers on reducing waste is as important as staging actual recycling events.
She said she enjoys showing children in schools how they can reuse glass bottles for art projects, as vases for plants, or even as a prop in sex education lessons to students how to put on a condom.
Lai said the attitudes of Hongkongers towards waste have actually worsened in the last few decades as the city became more affluent.
“My mother’s generation respected the resources, because resources to them were not unlimited,” she said. “But growing up in an affluent society, our new generation always takes it for granted. They don’t really think about how things will eventually be gone from our Earth.”
Fact about glass
● Glass is infinitely recyclable, meaning that its quality does not decline on successive uses
● Hong Kong produces about 275 tonnes of glass bottles every day but only about 10 per cent of this is recycled, according to Green Glass Green
● In 2016, the Hong Kong government passed an amendment bill to charge a levy of about HK$1 per glass bottle, aiming to end wholesale dumping of glass containers in landfills. The money raised could be used to hire a contractor to help recycle the city’s glass
● In 2016, there were about 1,300 recycling points in residential areas and another 580 in public areas across the city. The government has pledged to expand its recycling network.
● Recycled glass is valued at about only HK$800 per tonne while textiles cost about HK$8,000 per tonne, making it harder to persuade contractors to take it away, according to Hong Kong Friends of the Earth
● For every six tonnes of recycled container glass used in the manufacturing process, there is a reduction of one tonne of carbon dioxide, which helps the Earth’s atmosphere in the long run and could help slow down climate change, according to the Glass Container Association of America