Clear The Air News Blog Rotating Header Image

February 20th, 2015:

Photo Essay: Hong Kong’s waste problem

CNY is a time for plenty of fun, plenty of food – and plenty of waste. Anna Cummins goes on a sobering visual journey into Hong Kong’s ongoing rubbish problem and looks at what exactly is being done to combat it. Photography by Calvin Sit.

Hong Kong has a problem. Together we generate more than six million tonnes of waste every year – and only 48 percent of it is recycled. An immense 13,800 tonnes of rubbish is going directly into the ground every single day. More specifically, local environmental group Green Power estimates that 180 million red packets, 1.5 million mooncakes, a million mooncake tins, 62,500 plastic lanterns and five million items of disposable cutlery are thrown away during CNY alone. In other words, this is a particularly pertinent time of year to think about what we chuck in the bin.

Now, this is all kind of bleak. We know CNY is meant to be fun. But change comes from awareness – and maybe, during all the festivities, now is the time to think of the harm we’re all creating to the environment. In this feature, we’re also looking at some of the positive ways in which Hongkongers are fighting back against excess. So it’s not all bad news! Come with us as we look at the ever-increasing waste problem in the all-too-fragrant harbour…

image001 (2)


This is the North East New Territories landfill, which sits on an exposed slope in Ta Kwu Ling, close to the border with China. This literal mountain of rubbish, constantly compressed by large trucks and encircled by scavenging birds, forms a distinctly dystopian landscape – with the towers of Shenzhen rising along the hazy horizon. Every few metres, the fragment of a distinctive red carrier bag from the wet markets floats between the scattered mattresses, plastic water bottles, children’s toys, instant noodle packets and other recognisable household objects.

The NENT landfill is one of three currently in use in Hong Kong and, despite being the smallest of the trio, it can hold 35 million cubic metres of rubbish. At the current rate of dumping, it will be full in two years, although a controversial series of extensions will soon add several years to that. The landfill is open from 7am to 7pm every single day of the year. In that time, a steady stream of trucks pull up to unload – each 40ft truck carries 21 tonnes of household waste. More than 2,700 tonnes of waste is dumped here daily. Find out more at

image002 (1)


No, this isn’t the lunch basket of a particularly hungry office worker. This is just some of the food that’s left unsold at the end of the day in a busy branch of coffee store Pret A Manger. The popular chain has a policy of not putting fresh food out for sale on the next day.

So – what happens to it all? Food waste is one of the largest problems the city faces in its ongoing trash tumult – with 3,200 tonnes of edible goodness being chucked away daily. That’s one third of the whole city’s municipal solid waste. If that wasn’t shocking enough, NGO Feeding Hong Kong explains it a different way – all those daily dumped dishes would fit on 120 double decker buses. That’s one reason why Pret has been donating its leftovers – around 2,000kg of salads, wraps and sandwiches every month – to Feeding Hong Kong since 2009. Grub like this heads to the charity’s food bank, situated in a warehouse in Yau Tong, before being distributed by volunteers to those in need. Maybe the city’s supermarkets, which chuck away 29 tonnes of food every day, should sit up and pay attention. Find out more at



This colourful mass is a bundle of used clothes – trussed up and sitting in a textile recycling warehouse near to Sheung Shui. The huge storage facility is packed, literally, to the rafters with clothes that have been saved from landfill through donation drives run by NGOs such as Friends of the Earth and Redress, before being repurposed and recycled.

We love fast fashion in our city. Around 80,000 tonnes of textiles are thrown out every year and it’s easy to see why – with an abundance of cheap and cheerful outlets to pick from in almost every district, a seasonal wardrobe update is more than tempting. But considering that textiles are close to 100 percent recyclable, the impact that the textile industry continues to have on the planet is shocking – a simple cotton T-shirt requires up to 2,700 litres of water to produce (WWF) and fabric dyeing is responsible for around 20 percent of all industrial water pollution in the world (World Bank). Buying secondhand has never seemed like such a good idea… Find out more at



If the telly is on the blink, your fridge light has packed in, the hinge of your washing machine is rusting up or you’ve got limescale in your kettle, think twice before dropping your electronics off at the tip and getting something new and shiny. This is the Tuen Mun warehouse of the Weee Go Green Recycling Programme, run by St James Settlement. Since 2003, the project has been giving a new lease of life to 20,000 appliances annually. Expired and unwanted electronics are collected from homes and businesses before being taken to a workshop in Tuen Mun’s EcoPark, where they are either restored and redistributed to local families in need, or otherwise dismantled and recycled.

Only 20 percent of the 70,000 tonnes of computers, televisions, rice cookers and other electronics that we dispose of annually goes to landfill in Hong Kong. That’s because the other 80 percent is exported out of the city. This is supposedly for recycling, although this can have disastrous effects for towns like Guiyu in Guangdong, which has become infamous for being the largest e-waste processing site in the world, provoking terrible environmental consequences. Thankfully, there are now several other schemes also copying what Weee Go Green is doing. Phew! Find out more at



This is Waterfall Bay. The small beach sits on the south side of Hong Kong Island, close to Aberdeen. The golden sunset and wispy clouds certainly set a beautiful scene. But there’s something else catching our eyes here. And that’s all the crap. You see, this is an unmanaged beach – meaning the government doesn’t clear the detritus that accumulates here. And that’s clearly a problem.

The items you’ll find washed up on our city’s beaches are most notably petroleum-based plastics (such as PET) – bottles, plastic bags, food containers and six-pack rings, which can take years to degrade. In fact, 80 percent of the world’s marine waste is plastic. And, once it has degraded, the toxic chemicals within the plastic, such as bisphenol A, or BPA, are released into the ocean and can wash up on beaches or end up inside marine animals. That puts a damper on sunbathing.

Reversing the terrifying trend is a giant undertaking, particularly as not all of the waste in our oceans necessarily comes from Hong Kong. In fact, it’s estimated that China produces a third of the entire world’s plastic pollution.But HK citizens can do their part by not throwing rubbish on to the beach or just on the floor in general, even in the city – vast quantities get washed through storm drains into the sea. For their part, the Environmental Protection Department has launched a campaign, ‘Clean Shorelines’, to find ways of solving the problem. Find out more at

Five new treatment plants needed to achieve food waste reduction target

New food treatment centres aimed at helping cut organic trash by 40 per cent in nine years could save company’s rubbish disposal fees

Businesses may be able to save on rubbish disposal fees from 2016 when the first of two food-waste treatment centres dedicated for their use opens as part of a nine-year war on food waste.

The plan of action will also target food waste at source and sets the “aggressive” goal of reducing the amount of food thrown away by 40 per cent – more than 1,440 tonnes per day – by 2022 compared with 2011, Secretary for the Environment Wong Kam-sing announced yesterday.

But the plan will not eliminate the need for bigger landfills or incinerators. “This infrastructure is necessary and is like our daily necessities, similar to other facilities such as power plants,” he said.

Wong’s 2014-22 food-waste plan sets out the urgency of tackling the city’s shrinking landfills, where food waste accounts for more than a third of the rubbish.

Each Hongkonger dumps 130kg of food waste every year, double those of people in Seoul and Taipei, the plan says.

The goal will be partially met by a network of organic-waste treatment centres – Siu Ho Wan on northern Lantau, Sha Ling in North District and a third one in Shek Kong, scheduled to start operations in 2016, 2017 and 2021, respectively.

When that happens, businesses may achieve savings by separating their food waste from other rubbish, for which a collection and disposal fee is payable.

The three plants will offer a combined daily capacity of treating 800 tonnes of food waste, or about 22 per cent of the 3,600 tonnes dumped daily in 2011 – the base year used for official comparison.

On top of those facilities, rubbish disposal charges, tentatively to be introduced in 2016 across the board, are aimed at cutting food waste by 320 tonnes or so, while voluntary programmes to reduce waste at source will shave off another 360 tonnes.

Wong said he hoped to build two more treatment centres beyond 2022, possibly in urban areas. Suitable sites were being identified, he said.

The Siu Ho Wan and Sha Ling centres will cater to the business sector initially. Officials are undecided if the plants should charge any gate fees.

Celia Fung Sze-lai, from Friends of the Earth, said the arrangement favoured businesses at the expense of households, which would be exposed to the full impact of the looming rubbish disposal charge.

“I don’t understand why domestic households, which produce the bulk of the food waste, will have no access to the centres after the rubbish disposal charge comes into force by 2016. The centres should cater for all.”

Fung said incentives should be offered to support privately run treatment centres in order to help households or housing estates that were willing to separate food waste.

Initial consultation findings indicate businesses will probably face “weight-based” fees.

Wong said there was a principle to make polluters pay.

He urged people to change their lifestyles. “Many cities improve their waste infrastructure only after waste charging is introduced,” he said.

Wong said they would run a study next year on how best to collect and transport food waste.

Elvis Au Wai-kwong, assistant director of environmental protection, said businesses tended to separate their rubbish better. The Shek Kong plant would cater for households when it came on stream in 2021, he said.

World Green Organisation’s William Yu Yuen-ping suggested developing more district-based centres to minimise the need for long-distance rubbish transfer.