If you had to guess how much waste Hong Kong produces a day, what would be your estimate? Probably nothing close to the sobering figure of 9, 000 tonnes, which is the actual number of solid municipal waste (SMW) that is sent to the landfill daily, and that does not everything else that is disposed of in a different way. Commercial waste, industrial waste, residential waste- food, paper, general trash- we are a dirty bunch us urban folk. Even sadder: hardly any of it is recycled. Most of said waste ends up in the city’s landfills, which are close to reaching capacity. Some say by 2017, we will have no more space left. So the question is, what are we going to do about our garbage?
This controversial topic was at the center of Zero Waste Global Summit, a one day event organized by Lisa Christensen and Nissa Marion, aka the dynamic eco duo behind Ecozine and Hong Kong Cleanup, one of the many events they put on as part of the city’s inaugural Zero Waste Week which also included a Zero Waste Corporate Roundtable, a Zero Waste City Wide Cleanup, a Zero Waste Happy Hour and a Zero Waste Youth Conference. They bravely enlisted a whole host of who’s who from the business world to the celebrity world to the green world to the policy world, uniting many different viewpoints and value systems to talk about the future of waste in Hong Kong. Heavyweights included Christine Loh, the Hong Kong government’s Undersecretary for the Environment, Paul Zimmerman, Founder of NGO Designing Hong Kong and Southern District Councillor, Dr Paul Connett, arguable the world’s leading expert on zero waste and best selling author of The Zero Waste Solution, Leslie Lukacs, Board Member of Zero Waste International Alliance and Enzo Favoino, Chair of the Scientific Committee of Zero Waste Europe. We had the pleasure of attending the full day of talks, speaking panels, debates and workshops, which were scheduled in four blocks: Policy, Education & Outreach, Technology and Business. Below is only a brief summary of our many learnings- it’s hard to capture the energy that enveloped us during the entire day, which was one full of invigorating success stories, well-articulated plans and inspiring individuals who dreamt they could make a difference, and then did!
The morning was dominated by the big bad incinerator debate. Many of the city’s ecological NGOs and private policy shapers argued against it: use the cost savings to promote zero waste policy and run awareness campaigns or convert our existing refuse centers into modern zero waste inspired facilities with space for recycling, composting, etc. European zero waste experts spoke of the continent’s efforts to move away from incineration as a waste technology altogether. Interestingly, incinerators, which are expensive to build, require enough waste per day to offset their costs. In Europe, cities and towns are finding that they don’t have enough waste for theirs. Countries like Sweden and Germany actually import waste! That was a revelation to us. Christine Loh argued the Hong Kong government’s case, which put very succinctly was: we have studied the US model, we have studied the European model, we have done our homework and there isn’t much of a choice: we produce too much waste for our landfills and we need a solution now, not a future one. She reminded the audience that the government doesn’t always have the flexibility that private institutions do- change within the system takes time and requires the buy-in of many parties. Certainly there are no easy answers and Ms Loh’s is no easy task. She made one salient point that stuck with us: zero waste is not just about the government and its policies, the buck starts with each of us- we need to consume less. Our habits is how we got here. Touche indeed.
We very enjoyed Pal Martensson’s tongue in cheek speech. The Zero Waste Europe coordinator and globally renowned waste management expert (he is part of the team that helped make Sweden zero waste country) actually had a slide that reprimanded the audience to stop wasting time on stupid things like Kim Kardashian and celebrity divorces. Instead he urged us to use our brains to think about issues that truly matter like the bees dying, our waste problems and the troubled oceans. We got a little teary-eyed when listening to the story of Sonia Mendoza, founder of Mother Earth Foundation in the Philippines and president of the EcoWaste Coalition, who works tirelessly with local baranguay (like districts) leaders to transform villages, towns and cities into zero waste exemplars. This is a woman who went house to house educating people about how to sort their household garbage, who created alliances with the local governments with “the most open hearts” and who did this all with zero funding. “Look for the district with the most open heart’ she told us, by way of final inspiration. It was hard not to call Mr Zimmerman and volunteer right then and there.
Other inspiring messages spanned a spectrum of circumstances. Claire Sancelot, Hong Kong’s very own zero waste mama and founder of the popular blog Zero Waste Hong Kong sharing what many would consider a shocking fact: everything her three daughters own is second-hand, from toys to clothes. Describing how she first got into the zero waste mentality, she charmingly spoke of her first born as a “culprit” in Hong Kong’s waste problem, innocently producing a bag of garbage a day, and enabled by her very own parents. Claire and her husband decided they could no longer accept this reality and four years later, their household is as close to zero waste as is possible in this city. Read more about her in our Green Queen Hero interview. Ike Jin Park, a remarkable 16 year old Hong Kong student, shared his experience of getting getting schools to use recycled paper exclusively as part of his student run NGO Project O2– so far they have over 15 headmasters committed on paper. One of his key messages was when discussing waste solutions was: ‘it has to be easy, it has to be replicable.’ If only we had been so well spoken and practical as teenagers!
It was a fair playing field and corporates had their say too. We heard from BASF’s Regional Market Development Manager about the multinational’s revolutionary Ecovio, a 100% biodegradable plastic material, and from the founder of ASB Biodiesel, a Hong Kong based clean tech startup transforming restaurant cooking oil waste into motor friendly biodiesel- in fact, ASB is the largest cooking oil collector in Hong Kong, savings miles of pipes and thousands of drains from being clogged up. Not to mention keeping it out of our oceans. Nomura’s CSR Committee Chair who spoke of the importance of hard data to incite investor change and brainstormed on stage about creating a zero waste corporate award to rally the finance’s world Type A personalities into positive action. Zero waste for large scale events expert Leslie Lucaks had a motivating story of corporate change: redirecting 98.2% of all the trash produced by Ohio Stadium (the stadium seats 100, 000 people) within two years. Wow!
Lunch was a delicious vegetarian affair by zero waste restaurant Linguini Fini and included locally grown produce and no disposable plate ware or utensils. Filtered water was provided by Aquasana (guests were encouraged to bring their own refillable bottles, no plastic bottles were served!). Homegrown Foods and IHM founder Todd Darling spoke briefly about the impact that going zero waste had had on Linguini Fini- the efforts represented savings of 50, 000 HKD so far and the non stop complimentary PR was great marketing for the newly re-opened eatery. It would be remiss to have a discussion about waste in the F&B industry in Hong Kong without Bobsy, the eco icon of the city’s restaurant scene and founder of the MANA restaurants. He gave one of the most rousing and powerful speeches of the day on the importance of the plant-based diet in the fight to conserve our planet’s resources, saying things like “the knife and the forks are the most powerful tool in the hands of humanity” and sharing stats like “100 billions farmed animals are being fed every day when 2 billion humans are going hungry.” Hard to argue with that…All in all, it was a beautifully motivating day of learning and inspiration.