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Waste land: What happens when Hong Kong's landfills run out of space?

Written by
Time Out Hong Kong
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Hongkongers throw away more than 3,000 tonnes of food every day. Zach Santos investigates the problem and finds out what solutions are being offered

Hongkongers seize any opportunity to get stuck into food, whether it’s a family gathering, social get-together or a business enterprise meeting. The imminent Christmas season should only serve to exacerbate things. Combined with local etiquette rules that dictate a good host provides more food than his or her guests are likely to eat, it’s not surprising the city has a problem with food waste. It’s an exponentially growing issue that doesn’t grab many headlines and that only a passionate few act on. Perhaps that’s not surprising: mountains of landfill don’t tug at the heartstrings the way, for instance, pink dolphins and their endangered habitats do.

But take a quick look at the Environmental Protection Department’s analysis regarding the current status of waste levels in Hong Kong and a reality check quickly sets in. As the department’s website bluntly states: “The current practice of disposing of biodegradable waste at landfills is not sustainable and is environmentally undesirable.” Research reveals that of the 9,278 tonnes of municipal solid waste dumped at landfills every day, 36 percent is food waste – the largest constituent of all waste produced. That amount is the equivalent to seven fully loaded jumbo jets or a whopping 120 double-decker buses. Of the 3,337 tonnes, 25 percent comes from the commercial and industrial sectors, which includes hotels, restaurants, markets, food producers and processors. That sector’s contribution has doubled in recent years. In 2002, the amount of commercial and industrial food waste was less than 400 tonnes per day. Now, that amount has bulged to 800 tonnes.

Despite these shocking headline figures it’s easy to remain complacent of the situation in Hong Kong. After all, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, globally, Southeast Asia produces the least amount of food waste in the entire world. However, EPD statistics say Hong Kong’s current landfills will be completely exhausted in less than two years. With space such a scarce commodity in our SAR, can the city afford to devote more land to rubbish? And what of the environmental cost?

Poverty is another aspect to consider. Numbers from the Commission of Poverty state 1.3 million people in our SAR struggle beneath the poverty line. Within that statistic, one in four children don’t get three meals a day, and one in three elderly individuals encounters difficulty in meeting basic nutritional needs. “On a global scale, there’s 900 million people starving on this planet and people are throwing away good food!” exclaims Gabrielle Kirstein, the executive director and founder of Feeding Hong Kong, the first Hong Kong food bank dedicated to rescuing surplus nutritious food from retailers, distributors and manufacturers and redistributing it to people in need.

Food waste can be divided into two components – the edible and the expired – and they can be tackled in different ways. By intercepting and lessening the discarding of wholesome-quality edible food, not only is landfill exhaustion delayed but redistribution provides an effective remedy to current hunger levels. It’s this mission that is at the core of charitable NGOs such as Feeding Hong Kong. “Every day we collect surplus nutritious food from manufacturers, growers, processors, distributors and retailers, and deliver it to partnered charities, who in turn provide food to those most in need in Hong Kong,” Kirstein tells us.

Unfortunately, the aforementioned only deals with part of the problem. “What you see in a developed economy like Hong Kong is that the waste occurs closer to the consumer,” says Kirstein, confirming a study held by the Environment Bureau in 2014 that discovered two-thirds of all the city’s food waste comes from households rather than restaurants. So far, no solutions have yet to be found on how to tackle all this waste heading to the dumps. “[First comes] awareness, then there is change in behaviour. The first step is to make the public more aware and better educated of the issue’s repercussions,” adds Kirstein, who continues to work for a long-term solution. Dr Chan King-ming, Chinese University of Hong Kong’s director of environmental science, confirms the belief that a remedy is some way off. “Concrete solutions to treat non-intercepted organic waste heading to the landfills are but in the future tense,” he remarks. 

Poverty is not the only concern surrounding this issue. The aforementioned 3,337 tonnes of waste dumped at the city’s landfill sites decompose and rot, adding to the global greenhouse effect. Tristram Stuart, an award-winning author, campaigner and food waste expert, stated in 2009 that the gas produced by decomposing uneaten food contributes as much as 10 percent to the cumulative greenhouse emissions of a country. Hong Kong, as an equatorial subtropical region, and producer of an already humongous carbon footprint, is no stranger to the effects of climate change brought about by greenhouse gases. “The problem with the accumulating food waste is the released biogas, methane, being a greenhouse gas of terrible malignancy, in addition to the carbon dioxide,” comments Dr Chan, adding: “It’s not just the cars and the factories any more. Now we have the 10 percent coming from the landfills. That’s a significant amount!”

One thing is certain, both Dr Chan and Kirstein agree that a change in policy is required to control the issue of our exhausted landfills and resultant environmental depreciation. Kirstein asserts: “The government’s had discussions on how to change behaviour. However, we are still yet to take the necessary steps. A change of policy or the financial disincentive that’s been proposed is key.” Dr Chan is keen to see more concrete proposals, recommending machines that are able to treat and upcycle food waste into material that could be of use, whether as raw materials, liquid, compost or even animal feed. “Other Asian nations, such as Korea and Taiwan, have already adopted the ban of food waste into landfill.Instead, they support the use of these machines,” states Dr Chan. “The EPD may claim that they have done something similar, but if you look at the quality of work, in comparison to the exponential rise, it’s insufficient.” 

As far as tackling consumer waste goes, Dr Chan suggests the government goes even further and implements a form of taxation and creates a new government department. “A charging scheme is essential to encourage the reduction of waste at the household level,” he says, later adding: “My proposed Recycling Bureau could be supported by a household waste charging scheme. It would help encourage both households and consumers to do better at producing less waste.”

The collective effort of individuals can prove quite consequential in this area. “Food waste is one issue where anyone can make a difference,” says Kirstein. “Shop sufficiently on a need basis, cook to cater to appropriate volumes and educate yourself on proper food freshness labelling, so you don’t waste perfectly good food,” she adds, explaining her three step process any individual can take to help reduce waste.

With space for landfill soon to run out, Hong Kong is rapidly approaching a tipping point and it’s up to us to move collectively to mitigate the problem. “We have not crossed the point of no return,” Kirstein reassures us, emboldening the idea of keeping up the good fight. But how long before it is all too late?

For more information about alleviating food waste visit feedinghk.org.

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