Tackling Hong Kong’s waste through multi-stakeholder collaboration

February 08, 2017

Cross-sector partnerships will be key to scaling back the copious amounts of waste sent to landfill in Hong Kong, according to Simon Lee.

Hong Kong has a serious waste problem. We produce significantly more waste per person than similar Asian cities like Tokyo, Seoul and Taipei. Our three major landfills are due to reach capacity this year or next. Yet we lack the advanced, automated recycling and materials reprocessing infrastructure found in many European cities, partly due to a lack of a space – here in one of the world’s most densely populated (and expensive) cities.

The food and beverage (F&B) sector is a huge contributor. According to the Government, more than 40% of Hong Kong’s waste consists of putrescibles – food and organic waste – while paper and plastics together account for the same again. Visiting any of the city’s busy districts at lunch gives some clues as to why – as countless cafes and takeouts serve meals in disposable containers. Building and office managers say that lunch boxes and coffee cups account for the largest proportion of waste generated by their tenants and employees.

The Hong Kong Government aims to address the issue largely through public education and incentives to reduce consumption. It will propose a new municipal solid waste charging scheme to the Legislative Council this year; however, due to complex political factors, passing new laws here is an often complicated, drawn-out process. And while the first of a series of organic waste treatment facilities (OWTFs) is currently being built to process food waste into clean energy, other alternatives to landfill are not yet well-developed.

All this provides a real opportunity for business to lead. As part of our research to highlight small companies demonstrating environmental best practices, Sustainable Business HK uncovered a number of local pioneers. To name only a few – MANA!, a chain of three vegan cafes, has for years operated at zero food waste and encouraged customers to sort their waste into the separate bins provided; Linguini Fini eliminated disposable items and installed a composting machine at the rear of their restaurant; Vegware, a UK-based company, has an office in Hong Kong selling fully compostable, plant-based alternative packaging.

Last summer we formed the Zero Waste Alliance of Restaurants HK, a group of eight eco- and health-conscious food brands with a total of fifteen cafes and restaurants, and three supporting partners – Sustainable Business HK as convenor, Ecozine as media partner, and Vegware as a solutions provider. We agreed our vision – for an environmentally sustainable F&B sector in Hong Kong – and our mission, which is twofold: to prevent and minimise waste in our members’ restaurants and, for waste that is unavoidable (food packaging, vegetable cuttings), develop collaborative, circular solutions to turn waste into resources.

We have since engaged Baguio Green Group, a waste management company, to pilot a scheme whereby Alliance members are contracting Baguio to collect all recyclables directly from their cafes and restaurants, on a nightly basis. At Baguio’s sorting plant, materials are checked, grouped and sent/sold on to its recycling partners. For example, glass bottles are crushed into bricks for construction sites; food waste is processed into fish feed.

Establishing this new system collaboratively makes collections feasible both for Baguio and our members. Moving forward together has enabled us to connect more easily with stakeholders like the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department, to ensure our arrangements do not fall foul of their inspectors – and exchange best practices within the group, some of which will form the basis of our criteria for new joiners in the future.

We have twice met with Christine Loh, Under Secretary for the Environment, and her senior colleagues at the Environment Bureau to discuss how we could help encourage and support more restaurants to send their food waste to the first OWTF, when it is up and running. They shared insights gained through other pilot schemes – for example, learning that processing waste into compost is of limited value in Hong Kong, where the agricultural sector is tiny.

As a wealthy territory with a large budget surplus, Hong Kong’s Government can also offer financial support. Through programmes such as the Environment & Conservation Fund, Sustainable Development Fund and Recycling Fund, it distributes billions of Hong Kong dollars to NGOs, companies and others with ready-to-go solutions to the territory’s environmental challenges. This and/or corporate funding would enable the Alliance to expand to new restaurants and neighbourhoods in the future – increasing our impact as we do. Therefore, establishing a good working model and robust evidence of its impact is vital.

What is also exciting from the perspective of The Hong Kong Council of Social Service – the statutory body/NGO which backs Sustainable Business HK – is that this provides a model for cross-sector dialogue and collaboration that can be applied in other fields. For example, Hong Kong is not alone in needing to meet the challenges of an ageing population; we are exploring how we can bring together NGOs/citizens, property managers, transport operators, architects and others – to create a more age-inclusive city.

The key lesson we have learned from all this is that the technologies and the will for a sustainable future already exist. What is most needed to accelerate the transition is the coming together of willing pioneers and partners to implement the solutions collaboratively.

Simon Lee is a Senior Manager at Sustainable Business HK.

Read more insights from Sustainable Business HK here.