‘Liking, sharing Facebook posts won’t bring change’: Hong Kong Greenpeace activist urges city to wake up ... and smell the waste
Andy Chu says solution to environmental problems starts with reduction instead of just recycling
Andy Chu Kong, a campaigner for Greenpeace in Hong Kong, is encouraged by the city’s increasing environmental awareness. He says that even his mother, who did not grow up with slogans about how to live a greener lifestyle, is making efforts to recycle at home.
But Chu knows there is a lot more work to be done and he says that corporations are the key to solving the city’s waste crisis.
Plastic accounts for 22 per cent of rubbish in Hong Kong’s landfills. About 2,000 tonnes of it is dumped every day in the city. Although recycling of plastic peaked at 1.57 million tonnes in 2010, it has since been declining sharply.
The problem is so bad that there have been calls for Hong Kong to follow France’s lead in banning disposable plastic cups and plates, which will mean many chain restaurants will be forced to change their entire catering approach.
Meanwhile, Hongkongers have also faced calls to curb their shopping addiction. A Greenpeace survey this year found that the city’s residents are spending HK$25 billion a year on clothes – twice the amount of their Taiwanese counterparts. The obsession with buying clothes is contributing to unnecessary textile waste in landfills, campaigners say.
Chu speaks to the Post about Hong Kong’s overconsumption problems, particularly the city’s excessive use of plastic, and why reducing what we buy rather than recycling more might be the ultimate solution. He also discusses Hong Kong’s problem with beach littering, controversial government plans to build flats in its country parks and the global battle against climate change.
Hong Kong has an ongoing problem with overconsumption. What strategies can residents adopt to prevent wastage?
There are three aspects concerning individual consumption behaviour. It is a well-known fact that Hong Kong people love to shop. There’s nothing wrong with shopping, but we should be thinking about how we shop. You should know what you are buying and not just buy it because other people are buying it. We are living in a “buy and dump” society in Hong Kong.
Secondly, residents should join community events, like beach clean-ups and recycling. Look for a social networking app like Meet Up and find some meaningful activities. Or reconnect with nature and go hiking in the country parks, in order to realise there is more to Hong Kong than just Causeway Bay and Mong Kok.
Finally, I would encourage people to join organisations which support environmental work. The change will come very soon. A group of people have more power than individuals.
What can the city’s restaurants and big corporations do to ease the problem?
Corporations have a very crucial role. Many of the chain stores are dominating the market, so if their policy changes then I believe a lot of the consumer behaviour will change too. Even dine-in restaurants use disposable plastic utensils – that is unreasonable. They have all these excuses like “the rent is high”, and “we don’t have the manpower to wash up”. If you want to be environmentally responsible, you can always find a solution.
Hongkongers are concerned that their waste intended for recycling is ending up in landfills instead. What’s your take?
I see two main aspects – we should follow the principle of reduction from the source: recycling is the end solution. If we focus on the source, we can already eliminate or subtract quite a large amount of the plastic. Today we are generating 2,000 tonnes of plastic daily. Recycling is not going to solve the issue and get rid of all that. So reduction is the real solution. It will hopefully lead to law enforcement from the government too. We can follow the example of France, where they have banned single-use plastic, and the same goes for Delhi in India. Why is our government so slow on this? It needs to be more aggressive.
Why do you think Hong Kong has developed a bad reputation for environmental issues?
It is about the lifestyle we have here; it is deeply rooted in our minds. We tend to solve problems by buying. We live such a fast-paced lifestyle that we don’t have a proper lunchtime where we sit down for one hour. We buy and we often take away. This circulates and tends to lead to more problems. People have the attitude: “It is not my problem, because the rubbish is not in my backyard”. They think that as long as they don’t see it, it’s going somewhere else: Southeast Asia, the mainland or into the ocean.
How would you rate the government’s progress on the city’s waste problem and how could it improve?
We do admire the waste charging scheme, which will cost a typical Hong Kong family about HK$51 per month. We think it’s a crucial step for the government because it aims to create a change in the behaviour of ordinary people. But then, we also see the shortfall of this scheme, because it doesn’t particularly deal with single-use plastic. We need to have a government solution from the very first stage, which is in part forcing companies to reduce their waste.
What environmental issues do you think the city is excelling in or at least improving on?
I can see some strong momentum building up on the issue of food wastage. I think the government has a scheme for food waste now. Even some restaurants have joined this campaign. So I can see some changes happening – the public is becoming more aware too.
I do see how after the handover, civic society has been maturing a lot on environmental issues. Food waste initiatives were originally built by small independent groups.
Photographs of Hong Kong beaches covered in rubbish, particularly plastic, went viral on social media last year. What impact did the subsequent news coverage have on your campaigns?
I think the photos of the beach rubbish were like a “mind bomb” for Hong Kong people in terms of shock value, because we don’t normally see this problem. For awareness building, it has had a huge impact. Especially online, these images went so viral, even on the Greenpeace social media channels. Hong Kong people didn’t realise the beaches could end up so ravaged, and all the rubbish could end up in the sea.
We cannot blame the mainland for this; plastic is a global issue, so Hong Kong people should be aware of how they contribute to this. We cannot push the responsibility away from ourselves; it is just nonsense to have this attitude.
In the long term, globally, Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior ship will be travelling around the world to highlight the issue of pollution in our oceans. It will also be coming to Hong Kong, and it’s a great chance to bring the message of pollution at sea and how to protect our oceans, to urban areas like our city.
What can ordinary Hong Kong people do to contribute to the battle against climate change?
They should join environmental campaigns like Greenpeace or other groups, and take action. You will not be able to affect the situation simply by liking or sharing a Facebook post. Try a beach clean-up, or do some recycling in the community.
Some years ago, we had a car-free day, and of course we encourage Hong Kong people to take more public transport. In general we are very holistic about our views in the city when it comes to public transport. Sometimes you see growing congestion and it is due to private cars. We always encourage residents to avoid using private cars where possible.
There are concerns over the government’s plans to build flats in country parks. What is the Greenpeace stance on this?
We were part of the joint statement among the non-governmental organisations objecting to these proposals. The Country Parks Ordinance is very clear that we shouldn’t be having any development in those parks. There are other areas such as the brownfield sites, or a golf course, where we could be building. The government should reprioritise the land. If you violate the ordinance, you will create unlimited desire to build in these areas. It’s likely to entertain a small group of rich people.
What first attracted you to the idea of environmental campaigning and why do you feel inspired to support environmental causes?
I think it’s really meaningful to be able to contribute my efforts. Hong Kong is very well-known for economic growth. People are making so much money which is great, but on the environmental aspect, it seems our awareness is quite far behind. So I prefer to focus on this area rather than making more money for the city. I think we need to be aware of the environmental elements here and cherish them before it’s too late.
ICELANDIC LESSONS AND GOOD ‘OL 1970s HONG KONG
What is your favourite place in the world and why?
It would have to be Iceland. I went on holiday there and I had the chance to live with Icelandic people. It does not matter how small their flats are; they still find ways to recycle. I travelled around the country and I saw an incredible glacier, but sadly it was melting because of global warming. I thought that was quite a stark reminder of the times we are living in.
Who is your environmental hero?
It’s not about one single person. I see in civil society that there are a lot of special groups who are putting in a lot of effort. They do not even do it as their full-time jobs; such as volunteers who go out and clean our beaches. And the spirit exists both online and offline. I find it inspiring.
Which era in history would you have liked to have lived through if you could be born in another decade?
I would choose the 1970s after the Vietnam War. I can see for Hong Kong that was the beginning of the economic growth. It was the hippie generation — full of ideas. People were very creative and doing all sorts of activism on gender and environmental issues.
What is the most adventurous thing you have ever done?
In Iceland I hiked up a mountain which was 1,800 metres above sea level. It took me more than 15 hours. The beautiful scenery really helped motivate me.