As a global metropolis with over 7 million citizens, Hong Kong produces over five million tonnes of waste every year, according to the Environmental Protection Department (EPD).
Increasingly the government and environmental groups have pushed for better schemes to boost the city’s recycling rate. In 2014, Hong Kong has a total recycling volume of 2.05 million tonnes.
In September 2016, the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel also announced that it would spend over HK$50 million to research into textile recycling.
Video showing a community green station in Hong Kong’s Eastern district. By: Eric Cheung.
In recent years, the government has also proposed building community green stations in each of Hong Kong’s 18 districts. Two of them have commenced operation in 2015, but many more are still under construction or planning.
But how well is the city performing in recycling work at the moment? Here are the five most recycled materials in Hong Kong.
Paper is the most recycled material in Hong Kong, with more than 947,900 tonnes recovered in 2014. Some of the items in this category include newspapers, magazines, envelopes and packing materials.
Paper is recycled through a number of ways. Perhaps the most notable of all is the “three-colour waste separation bins” set up across universities, metro stations and housing estates in the city. While the brown and yellow bins are reserved for recycling aluminium cans and plastic bottles respectively, the blue bin is for recycling paper.
Besides the traditional ways of recycling, a new startup has also placed its business model on recycling paper.
The Second Box is a company that places its focus on collecting high-quality carton boxes and reselling them to the public after processing. It was set up in late-2015 by four local students from the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU).
Earnest Wong, one of the co-founders of the company, says that he wants to help the elderly who rely on collecting carton boxes by connecting them with people who need the boxes.
“Most of the collected boxes appeared to be very clean, so why can’t we resell them to those who need them?” He says.
Kennedy Ho, another co-founder, said: “[We] aim to run a social enterprise that can boost the concept of recycling paper among local citizens.”
Paper recycling is important as the production of which often involves chopping down trees. This decreases the demand for new wood pulp and reduces greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, recovered materials can also save landfill space.
2. Metals (ferrous and non-ferrous)
Metals are the second most common recyclables in the city. Official statistics from the EPD suggested that around 920,600 tonnes of metals were recycled in 2014.
Metals can be divided into two categories: ferrous metals and non-ferrous metals. Ferrous metals contain iron, whereas non-ferrous metals do not. Stainless steel is an example of ferrous metals, whereas aluminium, copper and silver are non-ferrous.
Close to 850,000 tonnes of ferrous metals were recycled, while over 75,000 tonnes of non-ferrous metals were recycled in that year.
Among the “three-colour waste separation bins”, the yellow bin is reserved for recycling small metal items such as aluminium cans.
Some recycling firms in the New Territories are specialised in gathering larger metal scraps from households and businesses such as stainless steel, iron and copper. These companies are often located in remote places like Pat Heung.
For example, the Cheung Kee Engineering Environmental Recycling Limited operates trucks to collect recyclable metals from all around the city.
Old cars, buses and trucks are also among the items recycled by these firms. At the end of their uses, these automobiles are often crushed and their metal content is retrieved for recycling. It is not uncommon to see the crushed vehicles in car scrapyards in remote parts of the New Territories.
Metal recycling, as in other recycled materials, helps lower greenhouse gas emissions as it reduces the energy needed to produce metals from ores.
Plastic is the third most recycled material in the city, with over 98,700 tonnes recovered in 2014.
Plastic materials are widely used in everyday life in Hong Kong. Plastic bottles, shopping bags, and disposable cutlery are some of the examples. Some toys and stationery also contain plastic.
As is metal and paper, plastic is also recycled through the “three-colour waste separation bin” system. In particular, the brown bin is for collecting plastic bottles. Larger waste plastic is recycled through the existing community recycling centres around Hong Kong.
Some of the waste plastic collected will be recycled locally. The city’s only plastic recycling plant, the Yan Oi Tong EcoPark Plastic Resources Recycling Centre, has been in operation in Tuen Mun since 2010. It is tasked with conducting public education and demonstrating on-site recycling to turn waste into reusable materials. Yan Oi Tong is an NGO funded by the government to set up the centre.
In an emailed response, a spokesperson of the centre says that it normally handles 6 tonnes of plastic waste each day.
“We aim to provide a sustainable recycling channel for waste plastic. We collect plastic and turn it into renewable resources that can be sold at a higher price. In this sense, we can alleviate the burden on our landfills,” the statement reads.
Video showing the operations of the Yan Oi Tong EcoPark Plastic Resources Recycling Centre. By: Green Sense.
However, it has been reported that the centre is scheduled to close by the end of this year. In a government press release, the EPD says it will enhance collaboration with the market to boost recycling of plastic in the future.
The recycling of plastic is significant because most plastic is not biodegradable. Hence, it can pose an environmental threat when dumped at landfills. Furthermore, many items like clothes, bottles and containers can be made from recycled plastic, and so this can help save energy.
4. Electrical & electronic equipment
Electrical and electronic equipment is the fourth most recycled material in the city. In 2014, more than 55,500 tonnes of old electrical appliances were recovered.
Computer products and home electrical appliances are both included in this category. Everything from mobile phones, air conditioners to rechargeable batteries contain components that can be recovered and recycled.
The EPD has set up collection points across its community recycling network for assembling electrical appliances. It has also enacted a voluntary producer responsibility scheme to encourage manufacturers to engage in recycling end-of-life products.
Some companies have started investing on recycling their electronic products. For example, tech giant Apple has started an environmentally friendly scheme known as “Apple Renew”. The company provides economic incentives for customers to trade-in their old Apple products so that they can be reused or recycled.
The Eastern Community Green Station, one of the 18 new green stations set up across Hong Kong, also focuses heavily on recycling rechargeable batteries and different electrical appliances.
With rapid advancements in technology, there has been a steady rise of end-of-life electronic products. Electronic waste recycling can thus recover valuable components from old products and turn them into something useful.
Furthermore, some heavy metals found inside electronic appliances are toxic and can pose a threat to the environment if they are dumped at landfills without proper treatment.
Glass is the fifth most recycled item in the city with over 8,400 tonnes recovered in 2014.
Some of the items in this category include beer bottles, seasoning glass jar, and even fluorescent lamps.
However, Hong Kong’s performance on glass recycling fares quite poorly compared to many advanced countries, as over 90 percent of glass waste still ends up in landfills.
The newly set up green community stations, together with the existing recycling network in each district, have been involved in collecting glass. But the scheme mainly targets household glass waste.
Green Glass Green, a glass recycling NGO set up in 2010, has been active in collecting glass bottles from the commercial sector.
Lai Mui-ching, project manager of the NGO, says that the government has largely neglected the problem of waste glass in the commercial sector.
“The EPD said that the existing recycling stations have covered 70 percent of all housing estates in Hong Kong. Yet, the recycling rate of glass is only around 10 percent,” she says. “This shows that the majority of glass waste originates from restaurants and bars.”
She adds that her NGO aims to fill the gap and engage companies to recycle glass.
Glass recycling is environmentally-friendly because it also saves raw materials and reduces the energy needed for producing new ones from scratch. Also, the recycling of glass is pollution-free and does not pose any threat to the surroundings.
However, despite different efforts to boost the collection of recyclable materials in the city, as much as 98 percent of the collected materials end up being shipped overseas for recycling work.
According to Green Power, exporting the majority of collected waste has made it difficult for the local waste recycling industry to develop its market. The environmental organisation also suggests that the government take a more active role in expanding the sales market for recycled products and provide assistance to green companies.
Nevertheless, as a responsible citizen in the global village, one should consider the impacts to the environment before dumping waste. Being active in recycling not only alleviates the burden on landfills, but also conserves natural resources and prevents pollution by reducing the need to exploit new raw materials.
Note: All the pictures included in this post were taken by the author.