From trash to treasure: NGO takes food waste recycling into its own hands as Hong Kong government falls behind on 10-year target


Passers-by could easily mistake a green trash can outside a wholesale store in Sai Ying Pun for a regular trash can, until they remember Hong Kong’s regulatory trash cans are bright orange.

Photo: Almond Li/HKFP.

Another quirk of the High Street green bin is the padlock and chain securing the lid. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

Photo: Almond Li/HKFP.

The bin is actually a food waste collection container, owned and operated by Eco Community Promotion Association Limited (ECPAL). The non-profit hauls organic waste daily to O.Park 1 in North Lantau, Hong Kong’s first organic resource recovery center, which converts food waste into biogas for electricity and residue into compost .

It is one of eight barrels that ECPAL has placed in residential areas in Hong Kong, co-founder Ivan Tai told HKFP. He said the bins were padlocked because the NGO runs a subscription-based food waste recycling scheme, with each household paying HK$110 a month to have their food waste handled and processed. Subscribers receive the access code to unlock the bin.

Ivan Tai, co-founder of Eco Community Promotion Association Limited. Photo: Almond Li/HKFP.

“We want to educate people that they have to pay a price for their waste,” said Tai, 24, who recently graduated from the University of Hong Kong with a surveying degree. He first got into food composting when he interned for the forerunner of ECPAL, a non-profit organization called Hong Kong Community Composting, in 2019. He decided last year to take over the organization under the new name after learning that its former bosses and mentors were leaving town.

Tai said ECPAL is the only food waste collection program in the city that operates on a subscription basis. Charging people for waste is not a popular concept in Hong Kong, but the business model sends a message.

“Our subscribers are willing to pay us a fee because they understand that the food waste collection service has a cost…otherwise it won’t be sustainable,” Tai said.

ECPAL also cooperates with companies such as restaurants and shops that sell food products. Commercial subscribers pay slightly higher fees.

Tai met HKFP at a cafe in an upscale mall in Tsim Sha Tsui, one of his clients. Distinctive bins had been installed asking customers to dispose of their rubbish accordingly.

A designated bin for compost in a cafe, which has partnered with Eco Community Promotion Association Limited. Photo: Almond Li/HKFP.

Tai said Hong Kong was “far behind” in food waste recycling compared to other places like Japan and Taiwan, where locals were knowledgeable about the practice.

The 2022 objective

In the early 2010s, the government rolled out a 10-year roadmap to reduce waste and promote a greener, more sustainable way of life under the slogan “Use less, waste less”. It has pledged to reduce the amount of food waste by 40% by 2022.

According to the plan drawn up by the Environment Bureau published in 2014, Hong Kongers threw away 3,600 tons of food waste every day in 2011, the equivalent of about 250 double-decker buses. About a third came from the commercial and industrial sectors.

Photo: Flickr/Sparkist.

Authorities at the time said they would use 2011 data as a benchmark. If the city sticks to its goal of reducing food waste by 40%, the amount produced each day should be down to around 2,160 tons this year.

However, this goal seems very unrealistic. According to the latest data released by the Department of Environmental Protection, an average of 3,255 tons of food waste was thrown away daily in 2020.

Government records of Hong Kong’s waste generation and recycling date back only to 1995. Sifting through years of Environmental Protection Department data, HKFP found that the city had only begun recovering waste. food waste, which was considered municipal solid waste, for recycling. in 2011.

The amount of municipal solid waste collected for recycling has nearly halved in less than a decade – from three million tonnes in 2011 to around 1.5 million in 2020. The amount of food waste collected has increased over the years. years, but only a fraction – about three percent – of all recovered waste remained.

O.Park 1, which started operations in 2018, aims to process around 200 tonnes of organic waste per day. However, local media reported that they only processed half that amount last year.

In a report released last year, the government said the drop in recovery was the result of a crunch in the import of recyclables into mainland China, meaning the city’s waste had to be sent to the discharge instead.

big waster

According to the 2014 report from the Bureau of the Environment, two-thirds of food waste came from the household sector. In an attempt to raise awareness and reduce household food waste, authorities have launched a number of initiatives.

One of the best known was the Big Waster mascot, which was introduced with the Food Wise Hong Kong campaign in 2013 to encourage the public to reduce food waste at the source.

The government hailed the campaign as a success after household food waste disposal fell 17% from 0.37 kilograms per person per day in 2013 to 0.3 kilograms in 2019.

More recent programs include installing smart recycling bins for food waste in housing estates. Heng Fa Chuen was the first major private estate to join the pilot program, placing 15 smart bins in its complex to collect food waste every day since 2021. Residents hailed the move, saying it inspires them to recycle.

A smart recycling bin for food waste installed in Heng Fa Chuen. Photo: Almond Li/HKFP.

“I use it every day because there is food waste every day… There are several, so it’s quite convenient,” Ms Wong told HKFP.

A smart recycling bin for food waste installed in Heng Fa Chuen. Photo: Almond Li/HKFP.

Mr Siu, who has lived in Heng Fa Chuen for more than 20 years, said the estate once started its own food waste recycling program but discontinued it soon after due to hygiene concerns and of smells.

“It’s cleaner now because people can wrap food waste in a plastic bag. We used to just throw the waste in the bin, so it was exposed to air and less hygienic,” Siu said.

A community group that lobbied for the program said around 400 to 500 people a day use the smart bins to recycle their food waste. More than 8,000 kilograms of food waste were collected in two weeks between May and June, the HFC Professional Monitoring Group told HKFP. Waste is collected and transported daily to O.Park.

‘A good start’

ECPAL founder Tai said he heard about the smart recycling bin initiative. “I think it’s a good start, but the government [is] still doing a trial program, he has no continuous plan. He doesn’t have a roadmap to expand it to all of Hong Kong.”

He said the food waste collection network in Hong Kong needs to be strengthened as there were only a few bins across the city. His nonprofit hoped to fill that gap, but the entrepreneur admitted it took a lot of hard work and a lot of rejection.

Most residential buildings contacted by ECPAL rejected bins due to potential odor and hygiene issues, although other waste also smells if not handled properly.

O.Park 1. Photo: GovHK.

An academic said the government needs to do more than just educate the public about reducing and sorting waste.

“Education is just the basics. However, we don’t have enough collection facilities. We don’t have enough processing facilities,” said Johnathan Wong, professor of biology and director of the Hong Kong Organic Resource Centre.

He said the efficiency of building treatment facilities should match that of waste sorting and collection.

O.Park 1. Photo: GovHK.

“But the current processing facilities are running too slowly. It took almost 10 years before we could have these 200 tonne (O.Park) processing facilities. Hopefully next year or around next year , we should have the second O.Park coming up – O.Park 2… Using this speed to build our facilities, it would take us at least another 10 years before we could scale up to another 500 tons [of food waste recycled].”

In its latest master plan, the government promised to step up efforts to provide “adequate facilities” to handle 50% of the food waste disposed of daily by the mid-2030s and to give more financial support to the recycling industry to develop the technology.

When new chief executive John Lee took office in July, his administration said little about environmental protection policies. It remains to be seen whether the new promises can be kept.

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