Waste not, want not
Food waste accounts for almost 40 percent of Hong Kong’s municipal solid rubbish. With our three city landfills at bursting point and many poor people going hungry, Shirley Zhao finds out if there’s a disaster on the horizon
Simon Yu just attended a wedding banquet last month. A traditional one, according to Yu, with 12 courses and about 20 tables. “Every table had loads of leftovers,” he tells Time Out. At the end of the banquet, Yu says he saw the hotel staff fill a giant tank with the food which hadn’t been eaten. He estimates there was about 60kg of waste in there. And he doesn’t think it was on its way to the homeless. “It was such a waste,” he sighs.
Yu isn’t alone in his experience. It’s likely that every single one of us has eaten at a restaurant and left some food which has pretty soon afterwards ended up in one of Hong Kong’s three landfill sites, adding to a landfill crisis which must one day hit breaking point.
The amount of food waste the city produced last year increased by almost 11 percent compared to 2010, according to a government report released last month, while the total annual amount of solid waste produced decreased for the first time in six years by nine percent. The report also shows that about 3,600 tonnes of food waste was disposed every day last year, accounting for 40 percent of all the municipal solid waste disposed of daily. In comparison, less than two tonnes of food waste was recycled every day. All the rest went to the landfills, which, according to an array of government reports, are expected to overflow in two to six years’ time.
“This is unacceptable,” says Undersecretary for the Environment Christine Loh Kung-wai who, in an exclusive interview with Time Out, criticises past governments for starting to work on a comprehensive waste treatment system ‘rather late’. She also reveals that waste is to be one of the most important issues on her department’s table over the next five years.
Another person who finds it unacceptable is Celia Fung Sze-lai, environmental affairs officer at Friends of the Earth. “We’re disappointed that the amount of food waste produced has increased,” she says. And the reasons for the increase, according to Fung, stem from the fast development of the local tourism industry last year which she believes helped boost the food and drinks industry, thus enticing more Hongkongers to eat out more frequently. She also adds that ‘too little’ was done to increase recycled food waste production in the meantime.
Fung says the volume of Hong Kong’s food waste has taken up much of the landfills’ capacity. “Even if the landfills were expanded to twice their size,” she says, “they wouldn’t last long with such a vast amount of food waste being disposed.” Fung adds that the methane arising from the decomposition of food waste in our landfills can cause up to 20 times the damage to the atmosphere compared to carbon dioxide.
She also says that the decomposition creates a massive stink which then becomes a nuisance to the neighbourhoods. There were 1,120 complaints about the stench from the landfill in Tseung Kwan O last year – a 48 percent increase on 2010, according to the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions. “The smell is unbearable,” says Derek Chan, who lives nearby in Lohas Park, “especially on rainy days. I want to enjoy the fresh air in the suburb but look what I get!”
There are a lot of stats out there in connection with our food waste crisis. About 30 percent of daily food waste comes from the industrial and commercial sectors, according to the government report. And recent local news reports have claimed that city hotels each produce around 500kg of food waste every day. Friends of the Earth claimed earlier this year that supermarkets belonging to Hong Kong’s four big chains annually dump more than 30,000 tonnes of leftovers. The organisation also claimed, following a survey with more than 100 city families in March, that every Hongkonger disposes about 340g of food waste every single day.
“The key solution is to reduce food waste at the source,” says Fung. “The commercial sector has more room for food waste reduction because household food waste is largely inevitable.” Fung says hotels, restaurants and supermarkets always buy much more than they can sell in order to encourage consumption, thus a different, ‘greener’ business strategy and better management is needed.
According to the Friends of the Earth survey, the top types of household food waste in Hong Kong include fruit peel and seeds, bones, fruit, vegetable leaves and stems, and leftover materials after straining soup. The organisation says that while the former two types are often inevitable, the latter three can always be reused for cooking.
Simon Wong Ka-wo, chairman of the Hong Kong Food Council, has seen a trend of more hotels and social organisations reducing courses from banquet menus, and many young couples showing a willingness to downsize their wedding banquet menus. He also suggests the government needs to educate customers to order just the amount they can eat.
Food waste recycling is just as important, say many experts. The Hong Kong Federation of Women’s Centres has just started a food waste recycling programme to collect leftover vegetables and bread from wet markets and bakeries in the Yau Tsim Mong area and distribute the collected food to the poor in the district. According to Si-si Liu Pui-shan, director of the association, volunteers can collect almost 300kg of vegetables from a wet market which has 17 stalls, as well as around 200 buns from just five bakeries, on occasional days. However, they can’t work every day because, says Liu, they lack manpower. “A bakery owner once told me he wishes we could go to collect every day,” she says, “because he feels it’s a pity that he has to dump the leftover bread on the other days.”
According to Fung, at least 23 NGOs have started similar food recycling programmes here, having so far received more than 550,000 visits from people in need. Last year, 11 housing estates installed machines to turn food waste into organic fertiliser. Friends of the Earth says it’s negotiating with the supermarket chains so they can donate leftover food but, Fung says, they appear to be ‘rather hesitant over concerns about food safety issues’. “A food waste treatment machine’s capacity is too small and it’s very expensive,” she says. “Although the private sector has devoted a lot of effort into food recycling and reusing, it’s still not enough to solve Hong Kong’s food waste problem.”
So far the government hasn’t had a citywide food waste recycling system. Both Fung and Wong say that without initiatives from the government, there is little motive for either the commercial sector or households to recycle. “Restaurants need to hire different logistics companies to transport food waste,” says Wong. “It’s too expensive. Nowadays rents are already high enough.” Wong suggests the government provide restaurants with transportation subsidies.
Even if the problem of transportation was solved, there still would not be enough places for trucks to deliver food waste to be treated. The Environmental Protection Department is operating a pilot food waste treatment plant in Kowloon Bay but it can only deal with two tonnes of waste every day. Even once two other government-led treatment plants are built, plus another three private companies known for receiving and processing food waste currently running, the combined processing power will only be able to digest less than 16 percent of the food waste produced every day. “There needs to be a central food waste treatment system,” urges Fung, who also suggests the government install rubbish bins specifically for food waste, in addition to the current ‘three-colour’ recycling bins.
Fung sees a waste charging system as the first step to solving the problem of food waste, citing South Korea and Taipei as examples. Both regions adopted such systems before they developed their food waste recycling systems. Taipei started in 2006 with its government providing recycling trucks to collect and deliver food waste for processing.
However, Wong holds a different opinion. “It’s a good thing to let people pay for what they dump,” he says, “but it’s the customers, not the restaurants, who produce food waste. Is it fair to charge the restaurants while the government itself won’t do anything to help recycle food waste?”
Five food recyclers in HK
Started last year by the Bo Charity Foundation, this programme collects food from 25 restaurants, supermarkets, bakeries, caterers and corporate cafeterias. It also prepares meal boxes with the collected food and distributes them to people in need. So far, the programme has collected more than 20 tonnes of food and provided more than 50,000 meal boxes.
3118 2348; foodangel.org.hk
Food Recycling Scheme
Organised by the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions in 2009, this scheme collects vegetables and fruit from Tai Po District’s wet markets and food stores every Monday and Wednesday evening, preparing meals with the collected food for the poor. The scheme also sends expired food to local farms so it can be used as fertiliser. It can usually collect 200kg of food every day – but has been known to harvest up to 500kg.
3972 5261; firstname.lastname@example.org
Feeding Hong Kong
Established in 2009, this organisation receives fresh, canned and packaged surplus food from 10 retailers, distributors and manufacturers, and redistributes the food to 25 different charities for them to deliver into the hands of the poor.
2205 6568; feedinghk.org
This company has a food waste processing centre of more than 40,000sq ft in Kam Tin near Yuen Long District. Every day, it receives around 60,000 foam boxes of leftover meals – weighing around 15 tonnes – from more than 300 schools. It separates the food from each box and then processes it. The grub is turned into animal feed and the foam boxes are shredded up and processed into raw materials for plastic products.
3520 0760; greenidea.com.hk
This company co-operates with Kowloon Fish Meal Factory, the only fish feed factory in Hong Kong. It receives leftovers from four hotels and a yacht club before turning it into nosh for little swimmers. It converted more than 100 tonnes of food waste during July and August. And the feed sells at between $3,000 and $6,000 a tonne.
2472 6862; email@example.com