The Global Situation
As the world population rises, so does the waste piling up in landfills all over the world. More than two billion tonnes (equivalent to the weight of about four hundred million elephants!) of municipal waste is generated globally every year, and this number is only expected to rise in coming years.
China, once the main recycler and buyer of waste products, banned 24 types of waste imports in 2017 due to environmental concerns. This had an immediate impact on its waste intake, with the amount of solid-waste imports to China dropping from 42.27 million tonnes (in 2017) to 13.48 million tonnes (in 2019).
At the outset, other countries (mainly the U.S., Canada, France, Belgium, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands and the U.K., according to Greenpeace) simply started sending waste imports to other Asian countries. However, most of these countries (such as Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines) did not have the capacity for the sheer volume of waste that was being received. Overwhelmed, these countries began following in China’s footsteps with waste imports being banned in Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam and the government of the Philippines sending 69 shipping containers of waste back to Canada, sparking tensions between the two countries.
Southeast Asian countries are done with being the “world’s dumping ground” (Time Magazine, 2019) and developed countries are being forced to wake up to the consequences of consumerization and urbanization in their countries. Industrial nations, predominantly the US and European countries, that were dependent on the Chinese recycling industry are still continuing to search for alternatives. Dumping one country's garbage into another is no longer a viable solution, and without the implementation of sustainable waste management systems, the global waste output will continue to grow.
The Local Situation
Meanwhile in Hong Kong, the situation is not much better. Since the pandemic, there has been a rise in the popularity of takeout and eating-in. The waste accumulated via single-use plastics from take-out containers and other associated products has only exacerbated the situation. The densely populated city is the most expensive place in the world to buy land, (according to Coldwell Banker Richard Ellis [CBRE], 2020) and landfill space is rapidly running out in a city already so tight on space. The three landfills in use in HK, even with considerable expansion, are expected to be full by 2030 (according to Hong Kong’s Environment Protection Department).
A Local Opinion
Upon reaching out, climate activist Lance Lau has commented on the situation. At the age of only 11 years, Lau has been featured in prominent newspapers such as the South China Morning Post and is considered one of Hong Kong’s most famous emerging climate activists.
“In my opinion, Hong Kong is really lacking in recycling facilities. Even if the government does a recycling program, a lot may just be sent back to landfills or shipped overseas to be recycled - which probably doesn’t do much in terms of action… But most importantly, a large portion of the Hong Kong population has a low understanding of climate change and is very consumerist, doing a lot of shopping without even thinking about the environmental consequences.”
“I believe Hong Kong has a long way to go in waste reduction and general environmental knowledge - the government has a lot to learn and the people have to wake up to the consequences of their actions. Every choice matters, and it’s up to us to make or break the future.”
A Brief History
But it wasn’t always like this. In the late 19th century to the 20th century, waste was actually considered a benefit rather than a problem. At the time, the local waste was largely organic and biodegradable, so it could be used for land reclamation. This waste helped to fill in bodies of water, and expand the harbor out to the sea. In this way, more flat land - something that Hong Kong was sorely lacking in - could be created, and all from a cheap ever-growing source: trash.
Soon, however, the late 1950s saw the advent of industrial waste. This new waste, unlike the old, was mostly toxic or non-biodegradable. When used for land reclamation, it caused water contamination and build-ups of landfill gas. For context, landfill gas is a mixture of mostly harmful gasses (such as methane and carbon dioxide), created when bacteria begins decomposing waste down. These gasses could enter the atmosphere, producing an unpleasant odor, contributing to global warming and proving to be very dangerous for the health and safety of residents.
To counter this, the first incineration scheme was introduced during the 1960s to the 1990s, designed to be a ‘clean waste’ approach to managing the landfills’ waste burden. However, due to new research shedding light on the adverse effect of incinerators, public pressure mounted, resulting in all four incinerators being decommissioned.
More recently, in 2013, the HK government released the Blueprint for Sustainable Use of Resources for 2013-2022. The blueprint outlined their goal of decreasing the volume of rubbish from more than 1.5 kg per resident to 0.8 kg. However, in the most recent waste report published by the government (for 2020), the municipal waste per capita was at 1.44kg, only a 8.3% reduction from the original 1.47kg in 2019. At this rate, falling short of the 0.8kg goal is to be expected.
Due to land shortages, the city has limited space for recycling plants that could make a sizable impact, and incinerators have not worked in the past. While several recycling schemes have been implemented, such as an organic waste recovery center and a system for recycling electronic waste, these schemes have only made a small dent in a much larger problem.
On the bright side, a waste-charging scheme was implemented recently (passed on 26 August 2021 after a long delay). It is estimated that the average household will now pay $33-55 HKD to throw away their trash each month. This will hopefully encourage citizens to be more waste-conscious and reduce the overall waste output in the city.
Though it is an important first step, there is still a long way to go. There are still many gaps in the plan, including irresponsible disposal of waste and an increased burden on the poor due to it being a regressive tax. Even more long-term initiatives must be employed to both increase public awareness and tighten regulations regarding waste disposal. For instance, Macau’s government has banned styrofoam takeout containers altogether and Taiwan’s government has given discount codes to encourage the public to use reusables instead of disposables.
Because Hong Kong does not have the space for recycling facilities, the government should focus on some of the roots of the problem. They could start by working to educate the public - through posters, advertisements and talks - on sustainable waste disposal and its importance. To reduce the number of styrofoam plastic containers littering the beaches, restaurants can be redirected to focus on recyclable or biodegradable containers. By working with the community together, with time, the waste problem can be resolved.
But the government, while still holding a major portion of responsibility, cannot be expected to single-handedly resolve the waste crisis. Us citizens must wake up to the harmful effects of our waste on the environment. As Lau ended his comment, “Every choice matters, and it’s up to us to make or break the future.”