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City Weekend

‘Giving feels good’: Briton’s Lamma Island Facebook project capitalises on generosity to build communities in Hong Kong

Social media group Buy Nothing looks to tackle the city’s growing mountains of waste, and in the process help Lamma residents build bonds

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 September, 2018, 12:02pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 September, 2018, 12:02pm

Residents of Lamma Island have formed a group to give away literally anything – from sports gear, toys, to excess food – to bring neighbours together while reducing waste.

Kerys Powell, 45, a primary schoolteacher, started the Facebook-based group called Buy Nothing Lamma Island after day-to-day experiences led her to notice disparities in Hong Kong society.

“I’ve seen people throw away perfectly good things,” the Briton says. “But I’ve also seen other people helping themselves to clothes that were in a bin.”

Hong Kong has an acute problem with domestic waste disposal. The government reports that while city households threw away an average of 6,391 tonnes of waste per day in 2016, the city’s landfills are nearly full.

Powell read a story online about how two friends in the United States, Rebecca Rockefeller and Liesl Clark, started Buy Nothing, a network of Facebook groups focused on gifting items to other members of their local community. Powell, who moved to Hong Kong in 2000, thought the idea would work well on Lamma Island.

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People on Buy Nothing post pictures of items they hope to give away, and other members comment when interested in them. But what makes Buy Nothing different from other, informal swap-or-sell Facebook groups is that it has a binding philosophy and a set of strict rules.

“Groups are kept deliberately small,” Powell says. “You have to live in a specific area within walking distance.”

This reflects the community-focused mission of Buy Nothing: the Lamma group has just 600 members, and the size of the island means it is easy to get to other members’ houses.

“The project encourages people to meet in person,” she explains. “Even when you have a village house like we have on Lamma, you don’t find yourself interacting much with neighbours. But in this group you get to meet your neighbours.”

Another key rule is that members are forbidden from giving anything in return for a gift, which makes it purely about the act of giving.

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“Part of it is about not being judgmental and giving freely,” Powell says. “I think giving makes people happy.”

Yet another important aspect is that it is not automatically a matter of whomever replies first getting the gift.

“The system is explicitly not first-come-first-served,” Powell says. “You have to give a reason for wanting the gift.”

This way, the giver can choose to give to the person with the best reason.

“Often, others who have made a request see that a member has a greater need for that gift, and they withdraw their request.”

The rationale encourages people to think about the needs of others, pointing out that almost everything has some value to someone, and the diversity of gifts is unlimited.

Powell recalls an instance of a member afflicted with dementia and unable to leave the house being given an exercise machine. Another gave a piano.

Children’s toys and clothes are also popular gifts among members, but the dollar value of the gift is unimportant, Powell adds, noting: “One member made too much soup and offered it on the group!”

The message of Buy Nothing is gradually spreading, and Lamma Island is no longer the only such group in Hong Kong. Just two months ago, Hong Kong native Violet Chan set up Buy Nothing North Point on Facebook. The group is still in its infancy, with just 11 members, but the 30-year-old marketing professional is optimistic about more people joining.

Chan, a North Point native, describes a hope of seeing Buy Nothing grow organically.

“I plan to gradually attract members through friend referrals and organise activities to spread awareness,” she says, noting the group covers the whole of North Point and that the potential membership pool is comparatively large.

Powell welcomes the presence of a new Buy Nothing group in Hong Kong.

“I’m really pleased to hear another group has been set up,” she says. “I’ve had a lot of interest from people wanting to join from all over Hong Kong – and even Shenzhen – but of course the idea is that Buy Nothing helps connect a group of neighbours, so by nature the groups are small and hyper-local. Anyone can set one up and it takes very little time or effort.”