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Gloomy glass recycling trade is half empty in Hong Kong

In Hong Kong, glass recycling is way down at the bottom rung of the recycling hierarchy.

According to statistics from the government’s Environmental Protection Department, Hong Kong’s population generated 9,547 tonnes of municipal solid waste everyday in 2013. Of this, only 37 percent was recycled.

The recycling rates for paper, plastic and metals were fairly high at 50-80 percent, with much of the recycling carried out in the mainland and in other countries. Collectively, these brought Hong Kong an export earning of HK$5 billion. However, Hong Kong’s overall glass recycling rate only came to a miserable 9.7 percent.

global glass recycling rates

A comparison of global glass recycling rates in 2007-8. Source: Green Glass Green.

More than 90 percent of Hong Kong’s glass waste still ends up in its overflowing landfills. At the current rate of waste production, these dumping grounds are expected to be exhausted by 2020. So why is it Hong Kong cannot crack this problem, with a large majority of the city’s waste glass never recycled?

Woes of worthless glass

For a start, glass bottles are bulky, easily breakable, noisy and potentially dangerous. Moreover, glass waste forms a small proportion of the total municipal solid waste so there tends to be a stronger emphasis on the management of food, organic waste, paper and plastics, which together make up more than 80 percent of the total waste.

But the real reason why Hong Kong doesn’t care about recycling the 353 tonnes of glass it produces each day is a financial issue (as it normally tends to be in Hong Kong): the value of glass simply isn’t high enough.

“Recyclers in Hong Kong only take the valuable recyclables. Glass has a very low value and they won’t take it if government subsidies are not given,” says Edwin Lau Che-fung, head of community engagement and partnership at environmental advocacy organisation Friends of the Earth Hong Kong, one of the territory’s major green groups.

glass bottles

A collection of waste glass bottles. Photo: Flickr, via Anders Sandberg.

Metal waste can fetch up to tens of thousands of dollars per tonne while textile waste is valued at about HK$8,000 per tonne. Glass waste, on the other hand, is valued at a measly HK$800 – at least 10 times lower than textile waste. Even paper and plastic waste manages to fetch double the amount that glass can. When compared to these materials, the economic advantage of exporting glass for recycling is low as there is little price difference between recycled glass and virgin material.

Don’t drink and dump

It’s no wonder then that one of the major principles of glass recycling NGO Green Glass Green is “to advocate that glass has a value.”

Green Glass Green was founded in 2010 by members of the Hong Kong Dumper Truck Drivers Association, who are responsible for collecting and hauling construction and demolition waste before delivering it to landfill sites. During this process, they were shocked to see the large quantities of waste glass that were left in Hong Kong’s landfills, and they decided to change this scenario.

While the Hong Kong government has addressed domestic glass waste by stepping up glass collection at public and private housing estates, there remains a wide gap in the commercial sector which Green Glass Green is trying to fill.

glass collection drive

Waste glass collection drive in Wan Chai. Photo: Facebook, via Green Glass Green.

Today they have more than 150 partners – most of them pubs, bars, restaurants and clubs in areas including SoHo, Wan Chai, Tsim Sha Tsui and Stanley – and there is even a waiting list for potential partners. This includes household names among bar-hoppers such as The Globe and Trafalgar in Wan Chai. After helping them to install glass bins in their alleys, their volunteers visit the partner businesses regularly – sometimes on a daily basis – to collect and haul glass waste.

Since it is up to these businesses to segregate their waste and collect glass completely voluntarily, getting them on board can be problematic.

“Lobbying businesses is an issue. They have no incentive but they do have many excuses. They sometimes say we have no time, no space and that they would rather have one more table to serve customers than recycle glass. Our volunteers have to sort glass bottles from food waste sometimes which can be rather disgusting,” said April Lai, project manager of Green Glass Green.

According to Lai, Hong Kong had no glass recycling policy and no bins for public glass collection before 2010. Only self-motivated ‘ecopreneurs’ would pay private collectors to collect their glass. In the past, local beverage companies had an active “deposit-and-return” or “deposit-and-refund” system where they would collect their own glass bottles, re-fill and reuse them, while consumers were rewarded for their efforts with a small token refund when the return the bottles. Recently however, a number of local beverage manufacturers have moved their bottling plants out of Hong Kong and this recovery system is fast vanishing.

The commercial sector lacks infrastructure for large-scale glass recycling. Green Glass Green has established a public glass collection point in Wan Chai which is open to all commercial bars and restaurants. In areas like SoHo there is no space to do so and they have to supply individual glass recycling bins to their partners, and they regularly visit them to collect glass waste.

The glass that is collected by Green Glass Green isn’t recycled to produce more glass bottles or other glassware. The main outlet for absorption of waste glass in Hong Kong is the manufacture of ‘eco-bricks’ for further use in construction and reclamation.

eco brick

Eco-bricks made using glass sand. Photo: Facebook, via Green Glass Green.

Green Glass Green sends the glass it collects in trucks to an eco-brick factory where they then enter the production cycle. The glass is placed on an assembly line where crushers convert it into glass sand, which is used as a substitute for natural river sand and further mixed with construction material to produce eco-bricks. These are used for manufacturing paving blocks, for cement production and other construction activities. These paving block manufacturers that can absorb Hong Kong’s waste glass do not pay Green Glass Green for the glass supplied by them, since the cost of production using glass sand is higher than with natural river sand.

“While there is a debate on land reclamation itself, private architects need to adopt the use of glass sand as an alternative for river sand as a last resort,” said Lai.

When asked why waste glass wasn’t channeled into the production of glassware, Lai said, “I would be delighted to see more glassware factories in Hong Kong since currently there are none. It would be a more eco-friendly way to use waste glass as it consumes 25-30 percent less fuel.”

Glassy-eyed government?

Green Glass Green operates on a tight budget. They have received HK$4 million in funds from the government’s Environment Conservation Fund for two years, a majority of which goes into the haulage and transportation expenses. They do not wish to charge their business partners for their services for fear of losing their interest and respect once they become for-profit.

glass waste collection

Students collecting glass waste. Photo: Facebook, via Green Glass Green.

The government is proposing a new scheme, namely the mandatory Producer Responsibility Scheme (PRS) on Glass Beverage Bottles, which involves the imposition of a recycling levy on beverages held in glass containers to recover the cost of, and to properly finance, waste management and recycling. The progress in LegCo has been slow.

Meanwhile, Green Glass Green proposes that a mandatory clause on glass recycling be instituted on liquor licenses in order to push commercial businesses to recycle glass. However the government isn’t too enthusiastic about this proposal.

As an individual consumer, there is a lot one can do with conscious effort to ease the woes of recycling in Hong Kong. Lau, from Friends of the Earth, says, “Consumers should avoid generating waste in the first place, then reuse and recycle as far as they can. Recycling does need energy and will produce waste water in the process, but avoidance generates no pollution – it is simply the change of our consumption behaviour.”

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Gloomy glass recycling trade is half empty in Hong Kong