Prudent use of material urged

THE greening of Hong Kong's businesses and industries is not a black-and-white issue to Clint Marshall.

As chairman of the Private Sector Committee on the Environment, his role is to encourage local companies to get on the green path.

But as assistant general manager of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, he is also a businessman who knows only financially-sensible solutions will fly in the battle with the bottom line.

'In Hong Kong, there are people who would be happy to see the territory turned into a country park,' Mr Marshall said.

'But they have to remember there are six million people living here who have to eat. I think we have to remember common sense.' He chairs the six-year-old committee, a grouping of 22 of the territory's leading companies that pools efforts and resources on green projects. Members include the biggest hongs, major banks, developers, utilities, transportation companies and the South China Morning Post.

The committee was formed in 1989, acknowledging that government-imposed legislation alone was not enough to combat environmental degradation.

It sponsors environmental projects, explores a private sector approach to green issues and fosters a climate of public opinion to help the private sector and the Government take action on environmental issues.

Its first project was to urge the Government to privatise contracts for cleaning up floating waste in the harbour.

Now, as the budget for the Environmental Protection Department swells, the committee encourages the Government to spend its cash 'in the right direction'.

In 1991, the committee founded the Centre of Environmental Technology.

The non-profit organisation generates, markets and implements environmental projects. It advises polluting businesses and industries on how to clean up.

The centre also runs an annual conference to spread the word about the latest green initiatives, technologies and services.

The committee and the centre are charged with organising the annual Hong Kong Award for Industry: Environmental Performance.

In the committee's six-year existence, Mr Marshall has witnessed a slow but steady change in eco-consciousness.

'Five years ago, I don't think any businessman I came across even talked about the environment - it wasn't in their vocabulary.

'Now, it comes up in conversation all the time. Some are taking this with a bit of kicking and screaming but they have realised they are going to have to get their act together.' Getting a corporate act together can mean having regular environmental audits to assess the impact of a company's activities.

Companies may adopt a green policy, designate green managers and replace non-green technologies with environmentally-friendly ones.

Upgrading an outdated lighting system could do wonders for a company's lighting bills and give the environment a break at the same time, Mr Marshall said.

Under waste exchange programmes, one company's waste could become another company's raw material.

'One of the philosophies we are trying to prove to ourselves and others is that the environment is not actually an immense expense,' Mr Marshall said.

'The environment has a bit of a bad name and has been associated with huge costs. But business managers manage resources and it is just managing raw material to the benefit of the bottom line.' Back in the 1980s, environmentally-friendly technology was often created in developing countries that had more physical space than Hong Kong.

Green equipment had to be scaled down for local use.

'Now, we have to prove the technology is available and that, over the life-time of the equipment, it pays back,' Mr Marshall said.

One project now in the works will see some committee members buying electric vehicles for their fleets.

The battery-operated vehicles are cheap to run and do not spew out toxic gases.

But, despite all these green projects, Mr Marshall has learned 'there is no such thing as black and white' when it comes to environmental matters.

Companies pledge to use recycled paper but writing on both sides of a page is still considered a no-no.

Not all green fears being touted by environmentalists are substantiated by scientific fact. Politicians twist the green agenda for their own purposes.

'This is where, if the community is not careful, the politicisation of the environment can lead them by the nose away from the law of diminishing returns,' Mr Marshall said.

He used the scenario of a country that spends $1 billion and cleans up 70 per cent of a problem. But if, in the quest to become green, the next $1 billion only cleans up a further two per cent, is that viable? Mr Marshall fears some countries have gone overboard in the green boat but he gave Hong Kong a nod of approval for its progress in the area.

'We are far from perfect,' he said.

'But, if you consider the land mass we operate on and the number of people who live here, it is a remarkably clean place compared to New York City and I am very proud of it.'