Charity starts at home and Hong Kong has a solid reputation as a charitable city. When it comes to food waste, though, there is a huge disconnect. Thousands of people go hungry or do not get enough to eat each day, yet tonnes of edible produce gets thrown away by supermarkets. If we are truly as caring as we believe, it should instead be making its way to our food banks.
The amount involved is incredible - and some may say criminal. Although there are no official figures, the environmental group Friends of the Earth estimates supermarkets send 29 tonnes of unsold food to landfills each day. By the reckoning of one food bank, that is enough to feed 48,000 three-person families. The matter of hunger aside, there is no better example of how wasteful a society we have become - or of the need to cultivate a recycling mindset.
In a city as compact and wealthy as ours, letting people in need have what others do not want should be straightforward. Supermarkets and restaurants should have systems in place that make it easy for charities to get hold of what they do not want. Yet Friends of the Earth found that these rarely exist. Worse, efforts were sometimes being made, by using bleach and water, to discourage and prevent scavengers taking discarded vegetables, fruit and meat.
Supermarkets may not be inclined to donate food that has reached its use-by date or is perishable, for fear of it poisoning recipients. It is an understandable concern, but the answer lies with the government. They could give with confidence if Hong Kong had an equivalent of the US Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, which exempts donors from prosecution if they have given in good faith. Even then, food that is unfit for human consumption should be ending up as compost or animal feed, not buried in landfills.
Where there is mass retailing of food, there will always be waste. While discouraging supermarkets from overstocking, we should also be pushing managers to think of food banks before rubbish bins.