Too Little, Too Late: Hong Kong’s Glacial Progress on Mounting Food Waste Problem

Too Little, Too Late: Hong Kong’s Glacial Progress on Mounting Food Waste Problem

What you need to know

'We know that when you implement a charge or a tax on the population, they immediately align.'

A new waste charging scheme coming into force in Hong Kong in 2019 is decades overdue and remains incomplete, environmentalists say.

In a city with major land scarcity issues and some of the world’s highest property prices, food waste – seen largely as an avoidable problem – amounts for about 40 percent of the city’s waste.

From 2019, however, the government will start directly charging households, businesses and industrials for the waste they produce. While there is broad support for the new policy among concerned non-governmental organizations, there remains concern that the city lacks adequate recycling and food waste treatment facilities.

“Had they started these moves 20 years ago or 15 years ago, we wouldn’t have been in this problem today,” says Bobsy Gaia, the founder of Mana!, a group of restaurants aiming at generating zero-food-waste. “We know that when you implement a charge or a tax on the population, they immediately align.”

Accounting for leftovers from roughly three meals a day for around 7 million people, Hong Kong deals with more than 3,600 tonnes of food waste every day. The three main landfills in the New Territories, where the city’s waste is dumped, are expected to reach saturation next year.

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A residential tower is framed from inside a sculpture containing 7,000 recycled plastic water bottles with LED lights, at Hong Kong's Victoria Park. REUTERS/Bobby Yip

Changing habits

The Environmental Protection Department (EPD) is aiming to reduce the rate of per capita commercial, industrial and domestic solid waste by 40 percent from 2011 levels by 2022. Officials point to the success of similar, quantity-based charging schemes in cities like Taipei and Seoul, which saw decreases of waste by around 30 percent in the initial periods after introduction.

Gaia suggests that “the psychology for having to pay for something, regardless of how much it is,” should incentivize people to reduce their waste, even for high-income households.

“A tax should be implemented on all businesses and all households. It is not just the restaurants that are responsible for the food waste, but it is also the customers,” he says. “We are talking about mindsets, changing people’s mindsets; the most effective way is to hit their pockets.”

Jacko Chan, project manager at a food rescue and redistribution NGO, Feeding Hong Kong, likewise supports the scheme’s introduction.

“Many overseas countries like France have proven the effectiveness of government policy in reducing food waste,” Chan says.

Karamjit Kaur, a cook and Hong Kong resident for the past 20 years, says the charge could bring about change, but she would like to see lower charges for poorer households.

Gaia believes the government’s plan is incomplete.

“There are no facilities to treat food waste; there are no subsidies for recycling plants, there is nothing,” he says.

Under the new scheme, people and businesses will be charged through the use of designated garbage bags or a gate fee at disposal sites. Government-operated collection points and vehicles, which mainly serve residential buildings and institutional premises, will utilize new garbage bags. The per-liter charge for the garbage bags is proposed to be at HK$0.11 (US$0.01) for the first three years of implementation. Businesses and industrial companies, which use private waste collectors at landfills or at refuse transfer stations, will be charged a “gate fee” of about HK$400 to HK$499 (US$51 to US$63) per tonne.

Easier said than done

The government has delayed the policy’s introduction for years amid disagreement over setting the price of bags and gate fee charges. Moreover, the results of a food waste recycling project rolled out in 11 public housing estates in recent years suggested that for some Hong Kongers, recycling was easier said than done. In a two-year trial where food waste treatment facilities were provided, only about half the residents participated.

Still, nine in 10 Hong Kongers say they are willing to recycle food waste as long as they have the facilities to do so, according to a survey conducted by another NGO, Green Council.

Gaia says that it is still up to the public and businesses to take the initiative in reducing and composting food waste.

He adds that restaurants could compost the food-waste generated but are disincentivized by the additional costs and manpower.

“Costs are high, but if you are aware then the costs will just be like other costs like electricity and staff,” he says. “But because of the lack of awareness, ignorance, and lack of knowledge and understanding, businesses in the traditional format see these expenses as externalities.”

He urges commercial establishments to “wake up and look at what is happening to our planet, our community; look around you.”

US$1 trillion problem

It is estimated that about one-third of all food produced worldwide goes to waste each year, worth around US$1 trillion.

While much effort goes into dealing with food waste at the consumer end, most of the problem occurs somewhere between the producer and the retailer. In the Asia Pacific region, 15 percent to 50 percent of all fruit produced is estimated to be lost between the grower and the market.

The United Nations puts global food losses and waste at 40 percent to 50 percent for root crops, fruits and vegetables, compared to 20 percent for meat and dairy and 35 percent for fish. The organization notes that if a quarter of the 1.3 billion tonnes currently lost or wasted globally each year was saved, “it would be enough to feed 870 million people.”

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Editor: Olivia Yang


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