Environment & Health HKFP Voices

The upcycling Hongkonger telling tales of trash

By Soohyun Kim and Jasmine Ling

Among the myriad of skyscrapers in Wan Chai, there is a four-story tenement block in blight blue colour, Blue House. Inside the iconic historic building, there is a small two-storey room filled with rustic rice cooker bowls and broken umbrellas, dimmed with a ceiling light made of discarded bicycle rims.

Dubbed “the rubbish guy”, the unit’s resident Kevin Cheung Wai-chun enjoys a treasure hunt among the filthy garbage and waste. Although he no longer partakes in dumpster diving, the 32-year-old upcycling product designer collects rubbish as raw material for his creations.

kevin cheung varsity trash

Cheung and his 18-year-old parrot. Photo: Varsity.

Since 2011, Cheung has been working with various kinds of waste to create new products — a practice of upcycling. Upcycling is a process of transforming unwanted materials into new products of better quality. The practice is different from recycling because it does not involve the breaking down of materials. “When we talk about upcycling, we try to preserve the material as it is. We try to turn it into something else without changing it a lot,” says Cheung.

Cheung used to be a product designer at a battery company designing flashlights, power banks, battery chargers and other similar products after graduating from the School of Design from the Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

Yet Cheung saw limited room for creativity while working for that company. “Something was missing throughout the process of designing for a company,” he says, “You just get the parts and draw a beautiful box around it, and we call it [a] new product.” He also acknowledges the short lifespan of products he used for designs, as most break down within two years.

Cheung started studying the practice of upcycling to pursue creativity with environmental consciousness. The first product he created was a Boombottle, a speaker made from a plastic bottle. He made the first two Boombottles and joined a friend who sold handmade books in a flea market in September 2010. Since then he has been creating other upcycling products, such as Rice Bell, bicycle bells made of discarded rice cookers and Lumi-rim, a ceiling light created with thrown-away bicycle rims. His customers can find these products online and at four offline retail outlets.

kevin cheung varsity trash upcycling

Boombottle, a speaker made from a plastic bottle, which was also Cheung’s first upcycling product. Photo: Varsity.

Hong Kong has long been struggling with waste problems. According to statistics from the Environmental Protection Department (EPD) in 2017, around 15,516 tonnes of municipal solid waste were produced per day. The city’s three landfills, in Cheung Kwan O, Tuen Mun and Ta Ku Ling, are expected to be full by 2020.

Cheung points out the difficulty of recycling waste materials in Hong Kong due to the absence of a manufacturing industry. “We don’t manufacture anything so we cannot use waste material ourselves, we have to send it off to somewhere else,” he says, “we don’t really have much to say.” Recent changes in the Chinese government policy on imported waste have also aggravated the problem.“[Under the policy,] Hong Kong cannot export raw waste material without filtering, while Hong Kong lacks a facility for waste filtering or recycling,” he says.

Despite the poor recycling standards in Hong Kong, Cheung has seen improvements in the recycling industry as the government has started to find better waste treatment methods. He cites the local waste paper recycling and manufacturing plant that will be open next year in Tuen Mun as an example. “That’s a new baby step we are taking,” says Cheung.

Challenging the misfortune

Cheung observes that Chinese people associate rubbish with misfortune, “[The waste]’s for the dead people, it brings bad luck. I think that has to be changed,” Cheung says.

kevin cheung varsity trash upcycling

Cheung’s Lumi-rim, a ceiling light created with thrown-away bicycle rims. Photo: Varsity.

To create less waste, he emphasizes the idea of “thinking twice before buying.” He also conducts educational workshops in hopes of raising social awareness. Cheung explains the idea of the workshop is to help Hong Kong people adopt habits of using their own hands to create or fix belongings, instead of buying new things they need. “[The habit of making something with your own hands] is really important because when you stop using your hands, whenever you need [something], you just use money to buy it,” he says. “That also is one problem that ends up creating a lot of waste. People stop fixing it (things). Cheung provides life-warranty to customers for his products. “Whenever [how long], even four years, or five years…If it breaks, you bring it back to me and I will fix it for you.”

As a consideration for the budget, as well as the nature of the waste material, Cheung plays around with waste from corporates. Whenever he finds waste materials that are interesting in a landfill, he contacts relevant companies and asks for the materials before they are dumped in landfill.

It was not easy at the beginning. “[At first,] they were quite reluctant to give you the waste because they were not sure what you were doing,” Cheung says.

The table has been turned upside down now. As Cheung has built a notable portfolio, local and multinational companies have started reaching out to him for collaborations. With his range of products and philosophy, he has attracted corporates like Citibank and non-governmental organisations (NGO) such as Greenpeace for commissioned projects. “Everything I’m trying to do, it’s not just doing things that I like, but trying to inspire big corporations because they are the ones making the impact,” Cheung says.

kevin cheung varsity trash upcycling

Cheung provides life-warranty to customers for his products. Photo: Varsity.

He notes most companies pursue a glamorous style when organising events but it is not difficult to move away from that culture. “When one company does it, with a positive impact, it’s very easy to inspire other companies to follow.”

Aside from collaborating with the commercial companies, Cheung has worked with St. James’s Settlement, a non-profitable organisation located in Wan Chai. The NGO runs sheltered workshops for people with disabilities, and the workers have been helping Cheung with assembly work on his products.

Cheung’s creativity is not limited to companies and social enterprises, his work also relates to social movements. During the 2014 Umbrella Movement, Cheung collected broken umbrellas that were left on the streets after clashes and created thumbnail pianos with ribs of umbrellas.

Cheung sees a close linkage between social movements and environmental protection. He cites new initiatives following the Umbrella Movement, such as “Waste-no-mall” in Yuen Long and the “No More Junk Bay” in Tseung Kwan O.

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Cheung collaborated with Citibank for a commissioned project to build a boxfile sculpture with waste material back in 2013. Photo courtesy of interviewee.

He says: “[The movement] has gathered a lot of people who are willing to change society. So that actually became a big momentum to continue to change in the society when they go back to the communities and recycling is one point.”

Cheung re-creates his thumbnail piano using newly-collected umbrellas used by protesters in the anti-extradition law amendment bill movement. The thumbnail piano plays notes to “Do you hear the people sing?” and “Glory to Hong Kong”, the two anthems frequently sung by movement supporters, which give a special meaning to the piano.

“No matter how it (the movement) ends, this time it should lead to good changes,” Cheung says.

A storyteller and a dreamer

The upcycling designer prefers to be called a storyteller. “When you work with a lot of waste material, a lot of stories are behind it… it kind of grabs onto you.” He compares his work with the Blue House– one of the historical landmarks in Hong Kong, which is also where he resides. “It’s an old architect[ure]. The city thinks it is useless and old but once you renovate it, it becomes a modern, stylish living space. It’s a similar metaphor,” he notes.

kevin cheung varsity trash upcycling

In light of the recent anti-ELAB movement, Cheung re-creates his thumbnail pianos with umbrella ribs, which play notes to protest anthems “Do you hear the people sing?” and “Glory to Hong Kong”. Photo: Varsity.

“I think they [customers] are not just buying the products.” He believes each material carries its own story, which becomes the foundation for his design.

“[The] interesting thing about waste is that it’s always related to the city. Something happens in the city, that kind of waste is produced,” Cheung says. He notes these stories are what entertain and surprise people. “The surprise on the[ir] face[s] keeps me going.”

Cheung says he has achieved his ultimate goal as he enjoys doing what he is doing. But he still hopes to see “what ends up in bins can end up on shop shelves and start all over again” in the near future.

The upcycling Hongkonger telling tales of trash