Unlimited California rolls and salmon sashimi: that's what draws Lam Chi-ying and her friends to the city's 'all-you-can-eat' sushi joints. The 18-year-old tries her best to tuck in but a few pieces of sushi invariably remain on the plate when she walks out with a bloated stomach. 'There's always the temptation to order more than I can eat to get value for money,' Lam says. Although Hong Kong is often touted as a gourmet's paradise, it's also becoming known for wasting food and critics are campaigning to reverse the trend. Environmental Protection Department (EPD) statistics show that a third of the 9,300 tonnes of municipal rubbish dumped in our landfills daily is food waste - more than double the average US figure of 12 per cent. Not only that, we're throwing out much more than we used to. Hong Kong's population increased 2.3 per cent in the past five years. Yet the amount of food waste has doubled in that period, says EPD principal environmental protection officer Lui Ping-hon. Some of that waste comprises spoiled food and kitchen trimmings, but a large portion is food that could have been eaten. Critics say that throwing out so much food is reprehensible when a child starves to death every five seconds and 854 million people worldwide suffer hunger and malnutrition. 'Hong Kong people don't treasure food,' says Michelle Law Man-suet of the Green Student Council. 'Their awareness of food waste is very poor.' A survey last year by the council found that 83 per cent of the 1,000 people polled left large portions of their lunch. Of these, 35 per cent discarded between 30 and 60 per cent of the food, and nine per cent ditched almost two-thirds of their lunch. 'Some say they didn't eat the food because it didn't taste good. But the majority - 69 per cent - said the portions were too big,' says Law. It's not uncommon for customers to leave restaurants with plates still laden with food. But few ask to take leftovers home, deeming it uncool. The excess is worst at buffet meals, where packing a doggy bag isn't an option. A few restaurants such as Lin Kee Hotpot and Seoul Jang Korean Cuisine have introduced fines to curb such wasteful habits. Ming General Sushi Restaurant, for example, charges HK$10 for each piece of sushi remaining, although a spokeswoman says waiters warn diners about the rule when they're seated. 'Most will eat everything they order to avoid being charged,' she says. The majority of eateries, however, don't take any action for fear of upsetting customers. Food waste at restaurants is mirrored in homes, where food at the end of a meal usually end up in the bin. 'Nutrition is top priority for most housewives; wastage is only a secondary concern,' says Chan Siu-chu, chairwoman of the Hong Kong Alliance of Parents' Association. Like many housewives, Chan says she prepares more food than her husband and two sons can eat rather than risk complaints of not having enough. In the past, thrifty housewives would either transform leftovers into another dish for the family or finish it themselves. But that's rare now as people turn up their noses at leftovers and are more concerned about their waistlines. 'Housewives of the previous generation would clean up the plates because they felt it was wrong to waste. But we're so overwhelmed by the slimming trend these days, we'll just discard the leftovers,' Chan says. Sometimes, it's a matter of face. 'When we invite friends for dinner, we'll cook more than we need to show we're generous hosts; that we're good providers for family and guests,' she says. Simon Chau Sui-cheong, who heads the Produce Green Foundation, says the problem with excessive leftovers has much to do with changing attitudes towards food. 'In the past, people regarded food as a blessing. Now, they only see it as a cheap commodity,' he says. Ethics aside, dumping large quantities of food worsens environmental woes. As the organic material decomposes in landfills, it produces methane - a gas that's 21 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in contributing to global warming. A composting plant opening in Kowloon Bay at the end of the year will help, but because its capacity is only four tonnes of food waste daily, the remaining 3,096 tonnes will still spew significant quantities of the greenhouse gas. Hong Kong needs to step up efforts to reduce the amounts of food that's thrown away. To raise awareness, Chau says top officials should lead by example. 'Next time Donald Tsang Yam-kuen hosts a luncheon or dinner, he should ask his guests to take the leftovers home. The media would help spread the message,' he says. Some charities try to make good use of leftovers. St James Settlement, for example, collects excess food from the staff canteen at HSBC headquarters in Central and serves it to needy families at its centre in Sai Ying Pun. Josephine Lee Yuk-chi, St James' senior manager, says the group had a similar arrangement with hotels, but some pulled out of the scheme because of worries about liability. 'Hotels can't ensure the quality of the food when it's re-cooked at our centre,' she says. To tackle the problem at its source, however, Hongkongers must change their lifestyle. If people can learn to value food, wastage would be reduced tremendously. That's why the Green Student Council will launch a drive next month encouraging people to ask for less rice if they feel the standard portions are too much for them. In return, restaurants could charge a token HK$1 less. 'It's a win-win situation. We hope more fast-food chains and food courts will join the campaign,' says Law. Leslie Chan Kwok-pan, a dietitian with the Hong Kong Council of Early Childhood Education and Services, says that early education is crucial. He's keen to promote the idea of not wasting food in primary schools after learning that many pupils leave half their lunch boxes untouched, usually rice and vegetables. He says the situation is caused by poor eating habits among children and giving them overly large portions. 'Children often stuff themselves with snacks and refuse proper meals,' Chan says. 'Parents should get them to snack less and ask for smaller portions if they know their children can't eat it all. The virtue of not wasting should be instilled at an early age.' Others such as Georgine Leung Chik-chi, a biochemistry research assistant at the Chinese University, are doing their bit too. 'It's our civic responsibility to conserve resources. So when ordering meals I ask for less rice since the servings are usually too big, especially for women,' she says. 'A simple request can save food and stops me from overeating.' Leung also makes an effort to take home leftovers that can be reheated for another meal and packs lunch when she's able to ensure a healthier meal. 'It's sad to see people throw out food that's still edible or untouched because they cooked or ordered too much, or didn't have the appetite. Strangely, a few even leave food on their plates so they can be regarded as small eaters. Some may bring home the leftovers, but it's not usually done at social gatherings because they don't want to be seen as miserly,' says the 23-year-old. 'There's a Chinese saying: 'every grain is planted with much effort'. This reminds us to cherish our food, but how far have we taken this lesson to our hearts?'