Environment & Health Opinion Politics & Protest

How Hong Kong’s trash problem became more visible on January 1

As of January 1 2018, the global waste disposal problem has taken a significant turn. China has banned imports of many types of unprocessed rubbish.

Hong Kong has been exporting 90 percent of its recyclables to the mainland, and these new regulations now mean that the garbage has nowhere to go.

Of course, the problem was already present. Completely inadequate recycling facilities, lack of effort to reduce waste at source by manufacturers and businesses, lack of policy, and irresponsible consumer behaviour have already taken the trash issue to an unsustainable point in Hong Kong for years.

However, the new regulations are now making it more visible, and Hong Kong will have a harder time turning a blind eye. If it wasn’t obvious to some before, it will be obvious now that our garbage is starting to pile up on our own doorsteps.

plastic litter rubbish waste trash

File photo: GovHK.

Five million plastic bottles are chucked into Hong Kong’s landfills daily. Food delivery scooters zip around town delivering plastic containers and unnecessary plastic cutlery at all hours.

Cafes are inconsistent with letting customers use reusable cups, so even when people attempt to change habits, businesses exhibit singularly ignorant or willfully blind behaviour.

Companies still hand out branded plastic swag at events and parties, people still buy balloons and glitter for parties, and one trip to almost any  grocery store in town can mean a pile of plastic waste as we bring home asphyxiated fruit.

fruits vegetables supermarket

File photo: In-Media.

There are some tiny slivers of hope peeking out behind these toxic piles of garbage we have been building up so keenly. A few new enterprising businesses and initiatives have sprung up in attempts to tackle various parts of our filthy problem.

Plastic Free HK is an online retailer selling some excellent alternatives to single-use plastic products we all use in our daily lives. Think glass tooth floss containers that can be purchased with refills, and metal tubes of toothpaste. NOW No Waste sells similar products to promote a zero waste lifestyle.

Live Zero has started retailing package-free groceries (beans, nuts, grains, some cleaning products, reusable bottles and refillable bathroom products to start) in a small shop in Sai Ying Pun, and retails other products in PMQ.

GoCup, which has been around since 2016, promotes the habit of bringing your own reusable beverage container to cafes to avoid takeaway cups. Urban Spring has been setting up some drinking water dispensers around town to allow for quick access to water without having to buy bottles.

sea ocean pollution plastic WWF coastal watch

A beach cleanup event. Photo: Coast Watch Project.

Creating alternatives for customers and trying to influence behaviour is great and we should all strongly support these efforts.

However, the magnitude of the issue is so devastatingly large and so compounded by the systems we live in that seem bent on perpetrating it, that we are all going to have to do much more, be more thoughtful, and demand better from all the entities that serve us.

If you’ve started the year wanting to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle and reduce waste, kudos. If you haven’t, you should.

Here are some suggestions for tangible actions to get started:

  1. Carry a bag and containers to the grocery store or market. It’s a ‘duh’ proposition, one that’s been around for ages, but all you have to do is scan the next store or market you’re in to see that the vast majority of us are still walking out with plastic bags. Carrying containers around requires more planning than we are accustomed to, so think ahead. Deli counters are happy to sell you meat and cheese in your own container.
  2. If your days are spent away from reusable glasses and filtered water, carry your own water bottle. Free Water can show you where to get a refill, or fill up at home or in your office, or try asking nicely at a cafe. If you have time, sit down in a restaurant and drink something in an actual glass.
  3. Pay attention to packaging. Is that almond milk you love putting in your smoothie only available in a tetrapak? Avoid buying it. Tetrapaks would be heinous to recycle even if we had adequate recycling facilities, which we don’t. Is your usual dairy milk in a Tetrapak too? Kowloon Dairy retails milk in glass bottles at specific locations in Hong Kong. Put one of those locations on your weekly shopping route. Sushi in a plastic container complete with a plastic green leaf and plastic wasabi packet? Treat it as if it’s simply not an option, and move on.
  4. Stop giving and accepting gifts that are plastic based. We’ve just come through the holiday season and are embarking on another. That cute little whatsit in the pretty little package you gave away as party favours? Well, it piles up and ends up in the landfill. Do you really need another plastic pen with some company’s name on it? Make a point, and don’t accept it. The more companies and people hear from other people trying to reduce waste, the better it is.
  5. Remove the concept of takeaway coffee from your life unless you have a reusable cup with you. Your mere minutes of joy aren’t worth that cup sticking around on a beach for your grandchild to come across one day in the distant future, or for it to break down and get into the bellies of the seafood we eat. Carry a reusable cup around; there are plenty of lovely options available these days.
  6. Refuse plastic straws. Let’s ask ourselves, how many things really need straws for the vast majority of the adult population in routine circumstances? Here’s the thing about these insidious straws – you’re going to have be pretty nimble about anticipating them and refusing them. Get in the habit of saying ‘no straw’ when you order any iced or cold beverage in any restaurant or cafe, otherwise you’re risking getting one regardless of your intention to use it.
landfill litter rubbish waste trash

A landfill in Hong Kong. File photo: GovHK.

A few general thoughts as we trudge through our own waste reduction attempts:

  • Reducing waste doesn’t mean you need to start chucking out all plastic products immediately and replacing them. You may not be able to replace everything, and if your plastic products haven’t reached the end of their use, you’re just adding to the garbage. Start by swapping things out and replacing them with better choices the next time you need things.
  • Try not to be overwhelmed. When you’re awake to the scale of the waste problem, it’s inevitable you will be at some point, so go easy on yourself and start with a few sustainable things instead of trying to compost from day one in your tiny apartment.
  • Even if you manage to go close to zero waste, there are going to be emergency situations where you’ll find yourself forced to confront plenty of plastic you didn’t want to (some travel and medical situations for instance). That’s okay. It certainly has its values and uses, but we aren’t using it wisely the way we live now.
  • Let’s acknowledge that these changes are difficult and often annoying to make. They are. Carrying reusable containers around is heavy and you need to remember to pack them, and then you need to walk the walk. Saying ‘no straw’ or asking flight attendants to refill your reusable bottle versus accepting a plastic cup on flights can be awkward. But you know what’s going to be much more difficult, awkward and far more annoying, not to mention dangerous? When we have no clean beaches left, when our seafood becomes more and more polluted with microplastics, and when our oceans turn into even larger putrid garbage gyres.

My hope is that the new regulations force us to confront the problem in a more active way, and become undeniably aware of the waste we generate.

My hope is that we don’t simply look to landfills to toss the waste into, but take steps to reduce it, on every level. Shoving potentially toxic substances deep into the land we live on isn’t a sustainable solution.

Exporting it isn’t either because someone somewhere is suffering from the pollution it causes. Not that we’ve ever really been immune from it in Hong Kong, but now, it’s about to be us.


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How Hong Kong's trash problem became more visible on January 1