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In Hong Kong, a Precipice of Waste

Published: February 6, 2011

HONG KONG — Retailers, manufacturers and economists love it: the annual consumption splurge that accompanies the Lunar New Year across vast parts of Asia.


A blog about energy and the environment.

Judging by the frenzied activity in Hong Kong’s gleaming shopping centers and in its less-gleaming street markets, the start of the Year of the Rabbit last week produced yet another spend-fest.

Environmentalists, however, are less happy.

Take “lai see” envelopes, for instance. Small and garishly red, they are used to give gifts of cash to family members and employees to mark the New Year in Chinese and other East Asian societies. Sounds innocuous enough.

But if estimates by the Hong Kong campaign group Greeners Action are to be believed, more than 9,200 trees’ worth of paper is being handed out in the form of 180 million of these “red packets” this year in Hong Kong alone. Considering that Hong Kong has a population of seven million, that is more than 25 envelopes per person.

Last month, Greeners Action called on Hong Kong residents to recycle their lai see envelopes.

Meanwhile, the Hong Kong office of Friends of the Earth estimated in December that one-fifth of the food at traditional Chinese banquets in Hong Kong is thrown away. Company and wedding banquets are traditionally opulent affairs spanning as many as 12 courses, and they are designed to display generosity and wealth. Friends of the Earth is now urging residents to cut their banquet orders by two courses in a bid to reduce waste.

Don’t get me wrong; Western societies are wasteful, too, and the annual mountains of Christmas wrapping paper undoubtedly dwarf the piles of lai see envelopes that are thrown away in this part of the world each year. But Hong Kong, it seems, is an especially wasteful society.

Take a look, for instance, at data compiled by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and published in its 2010 Factbook . It showed that two of the wealthiest societies in Asia, Japan and South Korea, produced 410 kilograms and 380 kilograms, respectively, of municipal waste per person each year. That is equivalent to just more than 900 pounds for Japan and 835 pounds for South Korea.

The figure for China, meanwhile, was 115 kilograms. The United States generates an average of 760 kilograms of trash per person annually, while the average in the European Union was 520 kilograms.

The O.E.C.D. statistics do not list separate figures for Hong Kong. But based on calculations I did on the back of a napkin using Hong Kong government data, the city easily outdid the world’s most developed societies in terms of per capita garbage generation: 928 kilograms, or 78 percent more than the E.U. average.

City administrators have warned for years that Hong Kong will run out of landfill space around the middle of this decade.

A “policy framework” written by the Hong Kong Environmental Protection Department in 2005 called for more waste recovery and recycling, with the aim of ensuring that 50 percent of solid waste was recycled by 2014. To encourage households and businesses to reduce trash, it recommended using alternatives like incinerators for organic waste and charging for garbage disposal.

Still, waste generation has continued to rise. Hong Kong generated 6.5 million tons of trash in 2009, compared with 5.7 million tons five years earlier.

It is no wonder; recycling habits are far from engrained in Hong Kong. Collection points for paper, plastics and metals may have become more plentiful, for example, but their contents are routinely mixed up with other types of waste. Glass recycling of the sort that is standard in Europe does not exist in Hong Kong.

More important, the main cause of all this waste — consumption growth — shows no sign of ebbing. Hong Kong is an economic powerhouse with a well-off society that loves to display its wealth.

Energy-saving habits also have yet to take root. Shopping centers, offices and movie theaters, for example, are air-conditioned to the point that Hong Kong residents take an extra layer of clothing wherever they go, even during the sweltering summer. And while there are new building regulations to encourage “green” construction, older buildings are generally poorly insulated and energy-inefficient.

A worrying question, then, is whether societies that are less well-off today, but becoming wealthier, will become as wasteful as Hong Kong is.

Imagine what would happen if mainland China, for example, with a population of 1.3 billion and 115 kilograms of trash per person, moved closer to the trash levels of Hong Kong — or even of the United States, Europe or Japan. While we cannot begrudge the increased consumption that comes with soaring growth, we would have a serious problem on our hands.

The environmental group WWF, for one, has extrapolated an interesting estimate from Hong Kong’s lifestyle. “Hong Kong people are living beyond the Earth’s limits,” it wrote in a report last month.

“If everyone in the world lived a similar lifestyle to that of Hong Kong people, we would need the equivalent resources of 2.2 earths.”

The recent calls by Greeners Action and Friends of the Earth to waste less and to recycle more are, at least, a sign that attitudes in Hong Kong have begun to shift. But judging by the trash statistics alone, much, much more is needed from residents, businesses and the Hong Kong government.

How about less packaging, far bigger public-awareness drives, and less fierce air-conditioning, for a start?

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