Throw-away attitude must stop

HONG Kong Clean-up Day is on us. While I'm sure some of the territory's worst eyesores will be tackled with enthusiasm, I am worried this will be an attack more on the symptoms than the causes of Hong Kong's poor environmental condition.

As a mild Green from Germany, I have found Hong Kong to be full of environmental surprises - not all bad. But they suggest that this is one of the ultimate throw-away societies, lacking the ecological conscience that has grown up in Europe.

Almost everyone here is familiar with Hong Kong's environmental trademarks, but there are some things perhaps only an outsider would notice.

As a true son of Germany, one of my first acts on arrival was to buy some bottles of beer. When I tried to return the empties to the supermarket, the store management was dumbfounded at my request to have my deposit money back.

One of the most striking things about this city are the gleaming office towers, including the one I work in. It seems perplexing to me, however, that most of these corporate landmarks seem designed to be energy inefficient, as if waste were a status symbol.

Whereas in colder climates there is focus on thermal insulation to keep the heat in, there is not an equal concern in warm countries to keep the heat out. This is surprising since it takes more energy to cool a building with air-conditioning than it doesto warm one up with central heating. I hope Hong Kong property developers and architects will start to consider this factor at the design stage.

Possibly the biggest eye-opener was my first walk in the New Territories. Rubbish was strewn everywhere. I even found a rubbish bin thrown into the undergrowth. This is an indictment of Hong Kong society.

Unfortunately, fouling the Hong Kong countryside isn't the monopoly of thoughtless individuals; it seems to be more systematic. It is inconceivable the Government would allow a rural property owner to use what was once presumably farmland for wrecking cars, container storage and myriad other dirty and disfiguring enterprises. Zoning laws are designed to concentrate such activities in specified areas and it must be well within the Government's powers to impose and police them.

The juxtaposition of the city environment and the countryside here and in Europe makes for some interesting comparisons. Most Europeans see the countryside as their opportunity to get close to nature and governments go to great lengths to conserve it.

Unfortunately, many European cities seem seedy and rundown by comparison with Hong Kong, where the Urban Council does an exemplary job of street cleaning - given the amount of rubbish which is no doubt thrown on them - and operates a domestic refuse collection service of staggering frequency. Most city dwellers in Europe are lucky if the refuse lorry comes round once a week.

I sometimes wonder, however, if this zeal for collecting rubbish actually encourages the throw-away mentality. Of even more concern is what happens to the refuse once it is collected. The answer seems to be that it is either incinerated, tipped into land fills or dumped at sea. Given there does not seem to be much separation between domestic rubbish and industrial refuse, all these avenues of disposal give cause for concern.

Generally speaking, mixed up rubbish represents waste and it costs money to dispose of it. Rubbish that is sorted, however, can be a valuable raw material. Sorting and recycling are therefore key processes in environmentally friendly waste management.

In this respect Hong Kong has some good things going for it. In light of my beer bottle experience I was happy to discover an informal but nonetheless efficient network that recycles aluminium cans here. Likewise, there appears to be a thriving business in scrap paper, most of which seems to get bailed up and sent off to China for recycling.

Looking into the future, however, I can see a problem with the business of recycling in Hong Kong as it is conducted - with only the poorest members of society scavenging bins to pull out the cans and collect up the paper.

As the general level of prosperity in Hong Kong continues to rise, along with the cost of living, there will be fewer people prepared to sort the rest of society's rubbish. As a result, it will no longer be profitable to recycle and the business will fade away.

Some of it will, I suppose, drift across the border to China, but that will be limited, because another principle of recycling is that rubbish needs to be sorted at, or close to, the place where it is discarded.

This points the path, I believe, Hong Kong must take if it is to improve its environment.

In many countries, people sort their household rubbish as a matter of course and as a matter of conscience. There is a formal infrastructure to deal with glass, paper and cans for recycling on the one hand, and for safe disposal of toxic items on the other.

Of course, such a system will have to be adapted to suit Hong Kong's circumstances; most homes do not have the space for several bins, let alone a garden and compost heap on which to recycle the vegetable matter.

Obviously, it needs the support of the population at large, which in turn requires a higher level of environmental awareness. In addition to participation from the community, and in fact as a precondition for it, there must be leadership.

Here things are looking up, since I believe that Governor Chris Patten is sincere in his desire to improve the quality of the Hong Kong environment. Given his background as a former secretary of state for the environment in the UK, you would expect him to be well briefed on the issues.

Within my company I've noticed a greater willingness to entertain my environmental thinking when setting business objectives and I'm convinced Hewlett-Packard is not alone in wanting to present a greener profile in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong youth will be prominent in today's big clean-up. I hope their elders start taking the steps to ensure that youthful enthusiasm is transformed into a sustained - not a token - effort to clean up Hong Kong.

Klaus Hieronymi is director of marketing support operations at Hewlett-Packard Asia Pacific.