Space, cost of living a challenge for HK sustainability efforts

Sustainability experts say the high cost of living in Hong Kong hinders its citizens from thinking more about environmental issues, but they add that legislation could make a real difference, as the example of South Korea has shown.

“The South Korean government first rolled out a policy, then things started to take shape,” says Merlin Lao, programme manager at ICLEI East Asia Secretariat.

ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability is a global network of local governments committed to sustainable urban development. Lao shared what has been done in South Korea to address food waste.

Since 2005, South Korea has banned dumping organic waste in landfills. And since 2013, the country has put in place a volume-based food waste disposal system.

South Koreans either put their food waste in designated biodegradable bags – a 3-litre bag costs the equivalent of HK$2 – or dump it into a centralised bin equipped with radio frequency identification technology to weigh the waste and bill it accordingly.

In the first case, government workers collect the bags three times a week. Lao, who has lived in the South Korean capital Seoul for three years, says he keeps his food waste in the freezer until it is time for collection.

“The public awareness in South Korea is high. People are very accustomed to handling their food waste this way,” he says.

Seoul, home to 10 million people, cut its food waste from 3,300 tonnes a day in 2012 to 3,181 tonnes a day by 2014. The city claims to recycle 100 percent of its food waste, turning it into fertilizer.

The question is whether Hong Kong can adopt such a model to handle its food waste.

Concerns quickly arise as Hong Kong is hot and humid with cramped living space. Leaving food waste at home for days, before centralized collection, does not seem feasible. The centralised bins installed at housing estates could be an option.

“Some may say there’s not enough space for these bins at a housing estate or a compound. But these are necessary facilities and the government can require space to be reserved for these bins,” says Simon Ng, director of Policy and Research at the Business Environment Council.

At present, most of Hong Kong’s food waste is disposed of at landfills together with other municipal solid waste. To date, the government has yet to propose a blueprint to handle food waste in the city.

But it does have an idea for how to reduce solid waste – that is, charging residents for their trash, to encourage reduction at source.

In November, the government introduced The Waste Disposal (Charging for Municipal Solid Waste) (Amendment) Bill. Starting from 2020, residents will need to pay HK$0.11 per litre of trash by buying designated plastic bags.

The effectiveness of this new policy remains to be seen.

“The Hong Kong government can push for improvement by way of legislation and it should always adhere to the user-pay principle,” Ng says.

“When a new law is introduced and a charging scheme is involved, the government needs to better explain to the public where the money will go. The public needs to understand that the cost of not protecting our environment would be higher,” he adds.

Low public awareness in Hong Kong is still the key issue, Lao and Ng say.

“When it’s already stressful to live in a city where the living cost is high, people can’t afford to think about sustainability,” Lao says, adding that this is the biggest challenge Hong Kong faces.