Coronavirus: How Hong Kong’s dramatic drop in recycling sets a dangerous new norm
Written by Marcy Trent Long & Ariane Desrosiers, staff writer at Sustainable Asia (Credits to Hong Kong Free Press)
In 2013, the Hong Kong government set a target that, by 2022, each person would throw away no more than 0.8 kg of waste per day. But this plan hasn’t quite worked out.
The situation is worse now than it’s ever been — in 2018, Hong Kong sent an average of 1.53kg per person to landfill each day, representing a 20 per cent increase since 2013.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s three remaining landfills are closer to reaching capacity every day, with many projections indicating they will be full by the end of the year.
So, where does the impact of Covid-19 fit into this bleak picture?
As data on municipal solid waste (MSW) disposal rates during the pandemic have yet to be collected, it is hard to establish if the amount of waste being sent to landfill has increased or decreased in the past few months.
The pandemic, hailed as a “green wake-up call” by many, has reduced waste from the hospitality industry. However, the rise in consumption of single-use items, such as personal protective equipment (PPE) and take-out dining waste, has skyrocketed — setting a dangerous new norm for Hong Kong residents.
On top of that, many groups who divert waste from landfills, such as recyclers, composters, and reduction organisations, are struggling to operate under the constraints imposed by the virus.
Despite efforts to improve waste recovery and recycling, around 70 per cent of waste in Hong Kong is sent to landfill. However, a number of these new offtake programs have not fared well during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Medical and household PPE
Since January, when residents scrambled to protect themselves from the virus’ arrival in Hong Kong, the consumption of personal protective equipment (PPE), such as masks, hand sanitisers and cleaning supplies has soared.
Although precise data on how Covid-19 has impacted waste disposal is yet to be published, we know that the increased usage of PPE in a medical context has little impact on our landfills, since the government requires all clinical waste to be sent to Hong Kong’s Chemical Waste Treatment Centre, where it is safely incinerated.
However, the increased consumption of domestic PPE is still contributing to the average waste per household. Improper disposal of PPE has also become an issue, with NGOs like OceansAsia documenting a significant increase in masks washing up on beaches since the virus took hold in Hong Kong.
“Most Hongkongers have been using face masks every day, many of which are single-use,” Dana Winograd, director of Plastic Free Seas, told HKFP.
“Add to that the plastic bottles of hand sanitisers and wet wipes and their packaging — it’s a lot. Even if only 50 per cent of the population used five masks a week for the past four months, that would be more than 315 million masks used.”
Winograd offered her thoughts on how to cut down waste while remaining safe, saying: “Reusable masks are a great solution, as is washing your hands with soap instead of using wet wipes and hand sanitiser, whenever possible.”
In early May, the government launched the CuMask+ initiative to counteract the mask disposal problem. They announced they would send a reusable face mask to all Hong Kong residents, although critics point out that this plan came too late to change the public’s perception that single-use masks are more sanitary. We will only be able to confirm what impact this initiative has had on our landfills when data on waste collection for 2020 is available.
The most noticeable addition to the city’s MSW during the pandemic has been from the F&B industry. From disposable cutlery to plastic bags and containers, the amount of single-use plastic used for takeaways over the past few months has increased by 2.2 times compared to the same period last year, according to a survey by local charity Greeners Action.
Every week, more than 100 million pieces of cutlery and plastic bags are now entering the city’s waste streams, creating enormous pressure on our already close-to-bursting landfills.
Luo Jiacong, general manager of Deliveroo in Hong Kong, said the early introduction of work-from-home measures caused a 50–60 per cent increase in the overall number of orders from January to February this year compared to the end of last year.
Thankfully, new initiatives from the NGO sphere, most notably WWF’s Plastic ACTion Initiative (PACT), have been actively working to reduce this waste. PACT is a pledge for food delivery companies to use eco-friendly plastic packaging alternatives and to provide customers with an opt-out option for single-use plastic cutlery, among other things.
Deliveroo and Foodpanda, two of the largest food delivery companies in Hong Kong, signed up to this commitment in March. Together, the two companies are estimated to reduce up to 130 tonnes of plastic waste in the next year as they take on measures to implement PACT.
In a recent RTHK3 TrashTalk interview, Laurence McCook, head of oceans conservation at WWF-Hong Kong, said the timing of this initiative was fortuitous: “With Hong Kong going into [partial] lockdown and having a consequent increase in online ordering, it’s ideal if we can make an impact during this time.”
Perhaps the most promising reduction in waste so far has been within the tourism industry. Since the suspension of overseas travel, the number of people occupying the city’s hotels and passing through the airport has dramatically reduced, with visitor arrivals plunging 99 per cent.
This decrease could be quite significant, considering the hotel sector alone contributes to almost 1 per cent of Hong Kong’s total MSW. For example, in 2018, Hong Kong Shanghai Hotels group sent over 3,000 tonnes of waste to landfill in a single year.
Even Hong Kong International Airport, often praised for its waste management and sustainability initiatives, contributed 25,410 tonnes of waste to the landfills in 2018/19. These numbers have likely experienced a drastic drop in recent months.
Soap Cycling is an organisation that works with Hong Kong’s hospitality industry to collect and recycle soap bars and amenities that would otherwise be thrown away. They report that, with hotel room occupancy rates falling, the volume of waste collected in the past few months has dropped to around 30 per cent of their pre-Covid average.
Recycling — subsidies and struggles
During the pandemic, there has been a decrease in recycling supplies for some independent recycling facilities. The closing of schools and community recycling programs has only added to the pressure that local recycling plants face.
Although larger facilities like WEEE-Park, Hong Kong’s electronic waste recycling facility, and OPARK, the city’s organic waste-to-energy plant, have remained open during the pandemic, smaller groups are struggling to maintain their previous levels of output.
MilMill is a pulp mill that collects Tetra Pak beverage cartons for recycling. The group has only been collecting 1 tonne of treatable waste a day recently, even though their facility can process up to 20 tonnes of waste a day. MilMill’s founder Harold Yip told HKFP that a long-term solution must come from the government. “I always say that we need regulation, we need policy.”
During Covid-19, the government has adopted two major subsidy schemes for recycling facilities that are currently financed by its recycling fund. The first is the One-off Rental Support Scheme (ORSS for short), which covers recycling facilities’ rent either by 50 per cent or up to HK$25,000. The second is the One-off Recycling Industry Anti-epidemic Scheme (ORIAS), which helps support recycling facilities’ operational costs by providing HK$20,000 every month.
The funds have dispersed over HK$90m to recyclers in the past few months, with over 580 applications approved. With most of Hong Kong’s recyclers being small-to-medium-sized businesses that, even under normal conditions, barely make ends meet, we have yet to see if these measures will be enough to keep them afloat.
Supporting independent recyclers will go a long way. Hong Kong’s recycling recovery rate is certainly not the best in Asia: as of 2016, (the most recent data available) it stood at around 50 per cent for paper and 91 per cent for metal, respectively, but at a dismal 14 per cent for plastic. Philippe Li, from Hong Kong Recycles, said that recycling during the pandemic has been tough, but “we just have to stick together and weather this out.”
Waste charging scheme delays
The most unfortunate effect of Covid-19 on the city’s waste management has been the delay in passing the Legislative Council’s (LegCo) long-awaited Municipal Solid Waste Charging Scheme (WCS).
The scheme was formally introduced in 2018 and functions on the “polluter pays” principle, where Hong Kong residents are taxed according to how much waste they send to landfill. Currently, the fee for disposing of a ten-litre bag of waste is set at HK$1.1.
The WCS has enormous room for potential; in 2018, the NGO Greeners Action ran a trial experiment revealing that a WCS could incentivise residents to reduce up to 30 per cent of their waste within a week. However, given the coronavirus and recent political events, LegCo is hesitant to pass anything that will increase costs to households.
“To get the municipal solid waste charging bill passed in LegCo, the government must convince legislators and political parties that the bill will be the biggest driving force should Hong Kong want to reduce waste to achieve its stipulated targets,” said Edwin Lau, founder of local NGO Green Earth. “Unfortunately, citizens are focusing on some other challenges at this moment and might not bother to give their supporting voices to the bill.”
The effectiveness of a WCS has been proven in many cities: after Taiwan implemented a similar scheme (coupled with education and governmental support for recyclers), waste disposal went down, and recycling rates went up to 55 per cent in 2019. It’s clear that without a long-term incentive to reduce waste, the government’s waste goals of 1kg per person seem distant. Yet our landfills cannot bear the city’s waste burden for much longer.
The consequences of the pandemic — increases in individual streams of single-use waste, the impact on recyclers, and the delay of the crucial waste charging scheme — are all going to reinforce our waste troubles. The lack of recent statistics on waste means that we still cannot define the impact of the virus on Hong Kong’s MSW.
However, the turn to more single-use, disposable items during the pandemic will be hard to reverse: some cafes are now rebuffingcustomers who carry reusable coffee mugs for refills.
To meet Hong Kong’s increased demand for waste disposal, the government has begun expanding the South-east New Territories Landfill (SENT) by an additional thirteen hectares and plans to expand the city’s other two strategic landfills as well. These extensions should meet the city’s landfill needs until 2030, but this extension will not resolve the root problem — too much waste per person in a high-density city.
Correction: A previous version of this article wrongly suggested that the average weight of waste sent to landfill rose 20 per cent “in” 2013, as opposed to “since” 2013. It also failed to mention two other planned extensions to the NENT and WENT landfills, which have since been referenced. This piece was also updated to reflect the correct fee for disposing of a ten-litre bag of waste.