Photo by Tommy Wong
Stroll along one of the many beaches that are not regularly cleaned by the government and one thing is clear: Hong Kong has a rubbish problem.
When Dermot Mayes arrived at a remote beach near Pui O for the Coastal Cleanup Challenge, a month-long event in which 6,500 volunteers scoured Hong Kong beaches for trash, he was appalled. “We found car doors, fire extinguishers, wheelbarrows, quite a lot of medical equipment, quite of a lot of syringes,” said the managing director of Nomura, a financial conglomerate. “I’ve spent a lot of time hiking around Hong Kong, especially the shoreline areas, and it’s always been a bugbear of mine that the beaches and countryside are really quite badly littered.”
Mayes and his teammates spent three hours cleaning up the beach, but they were left with the nagging realisation that, for all their hard work, they were only treating a symptom of a much greater problem. Every year, more and more trash is found in Hong Kong’s waters. Last year, 12,900 tonnes of waste were cleared from the waters around the city, nearly double the amount recovered in 1998, when just 6,750 tonnes were collected. Another 15,500 tonnes were removed from gazetted beaches, which are cleaned daily by the government.
Overall, the amount of waste produced by Hong Kong has grown by 2 to 3 per cent each year since 2005. If the amount of trash keeps increasing each year, Hong Kong will run out of space in its landfills within five years.
“The problem is that for decades our focus has been on treating waste, not managing it,” said Michelle Au Wing-tze, senior environmental officer at Friends of the Earth. “We just hide it away in landfills or toss it into incinerators. We’re wasting our resources if we don’t put more effort into recycling metals, plastics and glass and reducing the amount of waste we produce in the first place.”
According to research conducted by Ecovision and other environmental organisations, up to 70 per cent of the rubbish found in Hong Kong waters is produced locally. Much of it is washed into storm drains from the streets and inland dumping grounds during heavy rains.
“Hong Kong likes to place the blame on the mainland, but most of the rubbish comes from us,” said Guillermo Moreno, head of global conservation body WWF’s marine programme. “There’s an attitude here that, if you toss away something, somebody else will pick it up. There’s a lack of understanding as to what happens when you throw rubbish away. There need to be more stringent measures to force people to deal with their rubbish.
“The plastic bag levy [which taxes shoppers 50 cents for each plastic bag used] was a start, but it only goes so far –– we need something far stronger to reduce the amount of plastic that people use. I always tell people to take their own Tupperware instead of getting disposable plastic containers. I take my own shopping bag wherever I go. Those two things can have a big impact if more people start doing them.”
In recent years, the government has increased the number of recycling bins available on the street. In 2005, it launched source-separated rubbish collection programmes at public housing estates. Recycling programmes for fluorescent lights, computers, batteries and electronic equipment have also been established in recent years. These efforts have led to an overall reduction in the amount of domestic waste, but they have failed to reduce the amount of commercial and industrial waste.
Corporate environmental awareness remained exceptionally low in Hong Kong, Au said. Some big companies are bucking the trend, however, and making strides towards reducing their impact on the environment. This year Nomura participated in the Cleanup Challenge for the first time and became its title sponsor. Mayes said that this was only the beginning of Nomura’s increased awareness of environmental issues.
“This is a stepping stone towards bigger things we could be doing for the environment,” he said. “We have adopted a greener stance, whether that involves turning off lights in offices or making sure people recycle paper, and I think we’ve tried to address environmental issues on a daily basis. It really takes government and big corporations to be at the forefront of changing the way things are.”
Friends of the Earth and other green groups are lobbying the government to legislate a “polluter pays” approach to dealing with trash. They point to Taipei, where each household must buy government-issued garbage bags in which to dispose of waste; the more rubbish they produce, the more bags they must buy. In its first five years, the system, which was established in 2000, led to a 58 per cent reduction in the amount of trash sent to landfills.
For the time being, though, it is up to each Hongkonger to voluntarily reduce his or her impact on the environment. Lisa Christensen, director of the Cleanup Challenge, is optimistic that attitudes are changing.
“Levels of awareness are really improving,” she said. “People want to clean up their backyard. They really have a much clearer understanding of the issues around marine debris and they have a new awareness of their responsibility in the consumer chain –– they ask themselves what happens when they’re done drinking a bottle of water.”
Here’s an addendum to this story: Alex Hofford, a photojournalist and former classmate of mine, went to Shek O Beach the day after a big typhoon last September. Below is what he found. Normally, most of this trash floats far offshore, and when it does wash up it’s promptly cleaned by beach workers. The sand is usually spotless. But the strong waves of typhoons bring all of the junk from the sea and redeposit it on the land it came from. Gives you an idea of how much crap is out there.