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‘More water fountains needed in Hong Kong’, after government pulls small bottles from vending machines

Woman behind dispenser-locating smartphone app calls for fountains in public museums and libraries

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 November, 2017, 2:57pm
UPDATED : Friday, 24 November, 2017, 7:39pm

A lack of incentive to build drinking fountains in Hong Kong might dilute the effectiveness of a new government move to remove small water bottles from its vending machines, environmental activists have said.

Rachel Pang Hoi-yan, the founder of Water for Free, an NGO that promotes the use of water dispensaries in the city, said government departments had poured cold water on the idea of adding drinking fountains at city halls and museums. Event organisers were also discouraged as they often sought sponsorship from companies selling bottled water.

Pang’s plea came after it emerged on Thursday that vending machines at government premises would stop stocking water in bottles of one litre or less from February 20 next year. The policy was intended to clamp down on unnecessary plastic waste.

A spokeswoman for the LCSD said it would consider installing water fountains when planning new facilities and renovating existing facilities, according to needs and circumstances.

More than 5 million polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles go into Hong Kong landfills every day, and will take hundreds of years to decompose.

Pang welcomed the new policy and said she hoped officials would change their attitude to drinking fountains, which she called a vital alternative.

Four years ago, Pang developed a smartphone app that showed the locations of water dispensers in the city. She recently ventured into a not-for-profit business hiring out the machines to event organisers.

“I’m surprised to find water dispensers are absent from almost all government cultural venues like libraries, museums and performance halls,” she said.

“There are three vending machines but no water dispenser in the Science Museum. How ironic it is that they have run an exhibition about plastic waste before.”

In Kowloon Park, there are more than 20 vending machines but only three drinking fountains, all of them inside the sports centre, she added.

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In September, Pang wrote to the managers of City Hall, the cultural venue in Central, about installing a water dispenser. The venue is managed by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD).

Joyce Lam Hiu-kwan, the site’s assistant manager, said in a written reply to Pang: “Since City Hall is a cultural premise, mainly focusing on static activities, there are catering services in the building and its surroundings.”

Lam added: “All main LCSD sporting recreational venues like sport complexes… have drinking water facilities.”

There are more than 1,130 vending machines at government venues across the city, according to the Environment Bureau.

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Patrick Yeung Chung-wing, oceans conservation project manager at WWF Hong Kong, also welcomed the government’s new move and urged officials to install more drinking water facilities in government-run premises.

“This policy can help the public change their old habits of using too many disposables,” Yeung said.

“Then they should develop a habit of bringing their own reusable bottles.”

“Disposable water bottles make a key source of marine litter and add burden to the landfill. It’s unnecessary plastic waste,” he added.

Pang pointed out that private companies’ commercial imperatives were also involved in the decision to stick with bottled water at many events, including those on government property. She said it was harder to convince managers of mass events to ditch bottled water and adopt water dispensers.

“Many event sponsors are generous with providing bottled water. Organisers might not take the initiative to use water dispensers for fear of upsetting their sponsors,” she said.

James Ha Gee, a footballer for local club Southern who also plays for Hong Kong internationally, said he practises at the government-run Aberdeen Sports Ground every day and his team gets about 60 bottles of water per day from a sponsor.

“The sponsors pay to get their logos and names on our jerseys and for us to use their products,” Ha said.

“We don’t need to bring our own bottles, although I see some visiting teams from overseas bring reusable bottles [to fill with water].”

He said the government’s move to ban bottled water would benefit the environment, but admitted it would affect sponsorship deals.