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September, 2015:

Why Hong Kong is recycling less of its rubbish as time goes on


Alan Yu

Even as Hong Kong landfills are rapidly running out of space, the city’s recycling levels are decreasing

For years, Christina Yang has been conscientiously sorting the plastic bottles, aluminium cans and recyclable paper from her rubbish and placing them in the appropriate bins for recycling. But last summer, a cleaning lady in her building opened her eyes to what really happened to the materials that were supposed to be recycled.

“While she was collecting from the bin, I happened to take the recycling down and I asked her how I should sort my trash. She said you don’t need to do any sorting because it all goes in the trash anyway,” Yang says. “I was very angry because I had been sorting my trash, thinking that [we] were recycling everything and now you’re telling me it’s all a sham.”

The property managers for her building couldn’t give a satisfactory answer either.

Despite the discouraging response, Yang, a career coach and environmental consultant in her 40s, continues to separate her rubbish.

“I realised that it’ll be worse if I don’t sort my trash. I believe that consumers’ voices do matter because if we don’t do it, then no one will.”

There have long been complaints about cleaners mixing trash and recyclable materials, all of which ends up in landfills: in 2013 the SCMP filmed government contract workers doing just that in Causeway Bay and Wan Chai, and residents have regularly reported similar incidents with rubbish disposal.

That is why, since last year, government contractors have been required to use clearly labelled plastic bags for recyclable materials so everyone can keep an eye on them, says Wong Hon-meng, an assistant director at the Environmental Protection Department.

But both the recycling sector and environment officials acknowledge the problem goes beyond cleaners not handling trash properly: it’s hard to make money from recycling materials and the costs of sorting and transporting recyclables can far exceed what companies earn from selling the materials.

The city just doesn’t make it worthwhile to recycle and this is creating a pressing issue – Hong Kong’s propensity for generating more trash is matched by the declining capacity of its landfills.

A 2013 report by the EPD estimates that all three landfills in the New Territories will be full by 2019. The report also shows that Hong Kong produces more rubbish each day compared to nearby cities at a similar level of development: each person in the Tokyo metropolitan area generates about 0.77kg of trash daily compared 1kg per day for a Taipei resident, while Hongkongers top them all by each producing 1.36kg per day. The EPD hopes to reduce the amount thrown out by each person to 0.8kg per day by 2022.

But even as policymakers have taken to warning in recent years how Hong Kong landfills are rapidly running out of space, the city is recycling increasingly less of its rubbish: the amount that is processed and reused has declined from 52 per cent in 2010 to 37 per cent in 2013.

This may improve as the government gears up to introduce rubbish disposal charges for households and businesses, with a series of public briefings in June.

A panel of the government-appointed Council for Sustainable Development last year proposed fees of up to 39 cents per kg under a pay-as-you-throw scheme; based on estimates that one person generates about 1.27kg of waste per day, the bill for a three-person household would come up to HK$44 each month.

In 2014 the government also committed HK$1 billion for a new fund to help upgrade technology and infrastructure in the recycling sector and an advisory panel was set up in August to guide its operation.

Because Hong Kong has few of the factories and farms that could utilise waste plastic and compost (from food waste), most of its recycled material is exported, says Wong of the EPD. This means local recyclers’ earnings are heavily dependent on the global prices of oil, plastic and other commodities. If it’s cheaper to buy new plastic, manufacturers will naturally ignore recycled material.

Wong says the new fund will help recycling companies adopt modern technologies that may bring in a more stable source of revenue, for example, by converting waste oil into biodiesel.

Jacky Lau Yiu-shing, chief director of the Hong Kong Recycle Materials and Reproduction Business General Association, believes an economic incentive should boost recycling rates.

“If the trash isn’t worth anything, then no one will sort it for you. Most cleaners don’t get paid to recycle; property management companies have to placate the Environmental Protection Department so they’ll order cleaners to recycle, but the stuff isn’t worth much money,” he says. “It’s a vicious cycle: you can’t get any money from recycling, and the people on the front lines don’t get paid.”

The thing about roadside bins is, there’s no money to be had in recycling … contractors have to go all over Hong Kong [to collect waste] so the logistics is quite expensive

Jacky Lau Yiu-shing, chief director of the Hong Kong Recycle Materials and Reproduction Business General Association

Lau, who runs recycler Lau Choi Kee Papers Co, says a lot of paper and aluminium (mostly drink cans) are recycled because there is a well-established market for those materials; but that’s not the case for plastic.

As a result, paper makes up 52 per cent of all recycled matter while plastics comprise just 12 per cent, even though both materials each account for about 19 per cent of waste generated in Hong Kong.

Moreover, Lau says government contractors are often forced to dump contents collected from roadside recycling bins with other trash because they are heavily contaminated with things such as half-eaten meals and cigarette butts.

“The thing about roadside bins is, there’s no money to be had in recycling … contractors have to go all over Hong Kong [to collect waste] so the logistics is quite expensive and they won’t really do the separation for you; all they’ll do is collect the trash and send it to another company. We [recyclers] have to pay them, so if the trash is too contaminated, then we won’t take it.”

Meanwhile, the recycling sector is going through a tough patch because the market for recycled materials isn’t very good; it’s also tiring and dirty work, Lau says, so very few young people want to enter the industry, with the youngest workers already in their 40s.

Alfred Wong perhaps presents new prospects for recycling. The 27-year-old Wong is general manager of HK Recycles, which he describes as a logistics rather than recycling business.

The company, which was set up in 2012 by two socially minded entrepreneurs, Brian Mak and Mike Shum, has been able to recycle almost 90 per cent of the trash collected from some 600 clients, including office buildings and property management companies.

Wong says the key to how it has been able to recycle so much is simple: HK Recycles runs workshops and seminars for clients on how to separate their waste before collecting recyclable materials from them. Fees are charged to cover the cost of moving the recyclable materials to companies that do the processing.

HK Recycles is able to collect clean and well-sorted recyclable materials because their collectors talk to clients and offer tips on what can and cannot be recycled (drink cartons, for example, are not suitable). And the task is made easier by issuing zippered heavy-duty plastic bags prominently labelled for glass, paper, plastic and metal.

Wong says there has been so much interest in HK Recycles services that they have had to take down the fee listing on its webpage. (Households are typically charged HK$39 for a weekly collection and offices between HK$100 and HK$200. There are also monthly corporate packages that include recycling data and workshops for between HK$500 and HK$1,000.) Even so, there are 400 to 500 potential clients on their waiting list.

“The industry complains that people don’t know how to sort and how to recycle, but from our experience, that’s actually not true,” Alfred Wong says.

Details have yet to emerge on the government’s new recycling fund but Wong wonders how effective it can be if local recycling contractors prove reluctant to modernise their operations.

Many companies conceded in a Hong Kong Productivity Council report last year that collection is inefficient and expensive because they must pay to pick up the recyclable materials from various districts. Yet none of the recycling companies that Wong spoke to expressed any interest when he outlined the HK Recycles business model and the software used to track and gather data about their operations.

“The fear that I have for this recycling fund is … if recyclers are not willing to improve their operations, then it’s kind of pointless.”

Clean up your act

Following a successful inaugural Zero Waste Week in June, environmental campaigners have added a Zero Waste corporate challenge to the programmes rolling out under the annual Hong Kong Clean-up event.

Now in its 15th year, the clean-up drive starts tomorrow and runs until November 1. Last year, 51,064 volunteers collected 3,894 tonnes of rubbish from across Hong Kong.

Volunteers can sign up for the clean-up challenge that best fits their interests and schedules.

City Clean-up: with tips from an online toolkit, families, schools and offices can find easy ways to trim back what they throw out.

Country Clean-up: nature lovers may prefer to help by collecting rubbish left along hiking trails and in country parks, which spoil our enjoyment of the natural world.

Coastal Clean-up: many groups have organised rewarding days out helping to clear up marine debris, especially plastic, which is a constant blight on the city’s beaches.

Lisa Christensen and Nissa Marion initiated the Zero Waste event three months ago to encourage Hongkongers to reduce the amount of rubbish sent to landfills by using fewer disposable items and recycling resources. And with the corporate challenge, they hope to focus business efforts by helping them set targets and come up with comprehensive solutions.

Straight to landfill? Why Hong Kong is recycling less of your rubbish

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Climate change: An opportunity for public health

Dr Maria Neira, WHO Director, Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health (PHE)

Ahead of the 2014 UN Climate Summit, the health sector added its voice, loud and clear, to growing concerns around climate change and called for swift action to mitigate the human cost of a warming world.

At a global conference convened by WHO, some 400 delegates from all regions—including senior government officials, leading scientists and development partners—agreed unanimously that climate change poses “unacceptable risks” to global public health. From water shortages to changing patterns of disease, they spoke of present-day climate trends that are endangering the health of people in their own countries.

Impact of climate change

The impact of climate change on human health is, indeed, alarming.

Around the world, variations in climate are affecting, in profoundly adverse ways, the air we breathe, the food we eat and the water we drink. We are losing our capacity to sustain human life in good health.

Consider air pollution, the single greatest environmental health risk we face. In 2012 alone, exposure to indoor and outdoor pollutants killed more than 7 million people—one in eight deaths worldwide.

Under-nutrition already accounts for 3 million deaths each year in the world’s poorest regions. Rising temperatures and more variable rainfall patterns are expected to reduce crop yields, further compromising food security.

Floods are increasing in frequency and intensity, creating breeding grounds for disease-carrying insects. Mosquito-borne diseases, like malaria, are particularly sensitive to changes in heat and humidity. What will happen if rising temperatures accelerate the lifecycle of the malaria parasite?

According to WHO estimates, climate change will cause an additional 250 000 deaths per year between 2030 and 2050. Most will likely perish from malaria, diarrhoea, heat exposure and under-nutrition.

Children and the elderly will be among the most vulnerable. Areas with weak health infrastructure will be least able to cope. Developing countries will be hardest hit. The health gaps we have been trying hard to close may grow even wider.

Yet against this troubling backdrop, I am optimistic.

We know that climate change mitigation can yield substantial and immediate health benefits. It is time now to translate knowledge into action.

Specific recommendations

Let me offer specific recommendations, echoing some of the views expressed at the WHO conference:

First, health sector leaders must stand hand-in-hand with climate negotiators to confront climate change. For too long, policy discussions on climate and health have been too divided. We must position health as a central pillar in the climate debate rather than an ancillary agenda.

Second, health systems must become more resilient to climate change, particularly in developing countries. Hospitals and health centres should be reinforced to withstand powerful storms, heat waves and other extreme weather events. And we must ensure that water and sanitation services continue to function under flood and drought conditions.

Third, surveillance systems for climate-sensitive infectious diseases like malaria, dengue and cholera should be fortified. Countries should make better use of early-warning information to predict the onset, intensity and duration of epidemics. Such predictions allow health officials to pre-position medicines and vaccines, which can reduce the death toll.

Fourth, we should maximize the twin benefits of climate change mitigation and improved health. Reducing emissions of short-lived climate pollutants, like black carbon and methane, would slow the rate of global warming while also saving nearly 2.5 million lives per year. Sustainable, low-carbon urban transport—such as cycling or walking as alternatives to driving cars—could lead to dramatic reductions in heart disease, stroke, breast cancer and other ailments. And there are more health benefits to be reaped from more climate-friendly housing that protects occupants from heat waves, biodiverse food production that supports healthy diets, and renewable energy systems that improve access to electricity among hundreds of millions of people in developing countries—not to mention primary health clinics where women today often give birth in the dark.

Finally, the health sector should lower its own climate footprint. Hospitals, as they operate today, are energy-intensive enterprises that contribute substantially to climate change. To reduce their environmental impact, they can adopt basic measures such as reducing toxic waste, using safer chemicals and purchasing eco-friendly products.

Cost savings

Green policies can yield substantial cost savings. In Jaipur, India, a 350-bed health facility cut its total energy bill in half between 2005 and 2008 through solar-powered water heaters and lightning. In Brazil, one efficiency project reduced the demand for electricity of a group of 101 hospitals by 1035 kilowatts at a cost savings of 25%.

Since 2007, I have described climate change as the defining issue for public health in this century. Today, I would add that it is one of the greatest opportunities we face to improve human health.

At the UN Climate Summit and beyond, I will seek support from health sector leaders and development partners to push this issue to centre stage.

Beijing Blue Sky Turns into Pollution Clouds Immediately After Huge Parade

image001 (2)The pollution levels went sky high shortly after a huge military parade in Beijing. That is why, Beijing bans 2.5m cars for 2 weeks to achieve blue sky for parade

It was a sudden reversion to the old way of things. But such a thing was to be expected. A day after China’s massive military parade, the smog levels in Beijing went up, up and up.

Smog as everyone knows is smoke plus fog. And it is dangerous for lung function and public buildings. The blue skies that had been the norm since half a month or so had vanished overnight.

Beijing had a two week cleanup operation during which extra special care was taken to subdue the pollution levels. All car exhausts and sources of billowing smoke were eradicated.

The whole shebang was in preparation for the parade.

This parade was to celebrate the defeat of Japan in WWII. Scores of industrial outlets were closed during the two weeks and all cars were banned from the streets. Obviously the pollution levels simply vanished into thin air.

It was the most humongous parade ever held in China. And the excitement was at an all-time high. The parade was termed Parade Blue in honor of the pure skies of clean crispy air.

But such a state of affairs was not to last. A single day has passed and the same old grey skyline has resumed to cast its dismal shadow over all of Beijing. This is sad indeed.

According to the EPA, the smog and pollution levels are even worse than before. It is almost like the lull in things has caused a backlash of sorts. Now the industrial units are back in action and they are churning out pollutants.

The satanic mills are sending forth smoke that is black as hell. And all that effort that had lasted two weeks is gone within a time span of 24 hours.

The Victory Day Parade was a charade that has ended as suddenly as it had materialized. A year ago for a similar occasion, the pollution was cut to zero and the clear blue skies re-emerged.

But way back then the selfsame thing happened and the pollution returned in a villainous manner. China has always had a problem with pollution, according to CNN.

Being the carbon copy technology center of the world, it is only natural that all the pollutants would be concentrated in the Sino-Sphere. The dense black and grey clouds of smog have enveloped the city of Beijing once more. And so it is back to reality which is indeed a very depressing thing.

Kids Who Breathe More Pollution Have Lower Grades

A growing body of evidence suggests pollution can do a number on the brain. The July/August Mother Jones cover story chronicled the research connecting neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s to the dirty air we breathe; studies have found that pollution may also age the brain prematurely. And according to new research from the University of Texas-El Paso, pollution’s damage to the brain may start even sooner than was previously thought: Fourth and fifth graders exposed to exhaust emissions, researchers found, don’t do as well in school as their peers who breathe cleaner air.

The new findings suggest poor students might be at a greater disadvantage because of pollution levels near their homes.

Using the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Air Toxics Assessment, researchers estimated how often children were exposed to air pollution in their homes. They then compared that data with the academic performance of close to 1,900 kids enrolled in the El Paso Independent School District (EPISD)—an area prone to high levels of pollution.

Adjusting for other factors that can influence school performance, like socioeconomic status and parents’ education levels, the researchers found that students exposed to more emissions had lower grade-point averages. Areas included in the study were ranked by the amount of air pollution, and students living in areas with the highest levels (in the top 75 percent) had GPAs that were 0.031 points below those who lived where the air was cleaner.

The researchers also found that pollution from “non-road mobile sources”—such as airports, construction vehicles, and trains—had the greatest impact on GPA, even though factories and vehicle emissions often receive the most attention from policymakers.

The American Lung Association reports that some 139 million people—close to half of the nation’s population—live in areas with air that the group deems “too dangerous to breathe,” and the UTEP researchers highlighted that low-income families are more likely to live in the most polluted areas. Poverty alone has been connected to adverse affects on childhood brain development, but the new findings suggest poor students might be at an even greater disadvantage because of pollution levels near their homes.

“This study and this body of literature about air pollution is demonstrating one more negative effect of air pollution in our environment,” says researcher Sara Grineski. “There are many studies that show that higher levels of air pollution are associated with so many negative effects, from asthma, respiratory infections, cardiovascular disease, and autism, to reduced school performance.”

Grineski and her coauthor believe their findings indicate an even greater urgency to implement policies that will curb emissions. “The finding that there is a significant association between residential exposure to air toxins and GPA at the individual level is both novel and disturbing,” they write. “These findings provide another piece of evidence that should inform advocacy for pollution reduction in the USA and beyond

Air Pollution a Cause of Extreme Weather Conditions, Says Chinese Scientist

Other than being directly hazardous to health, air pollution has been pinpointed as a factor that causes extreme weather conditions such as floods and droughts, according to Fan Jiwan of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL).

Fan is a leading figure in atmospheric science at the facility, which specializes in research affiliated with the U.S. Department of Energy.

After two years of research combining real-life observations with computer simulations, Fan and her research team have published findings that put the spotlight on how man-made air pollution has contributed to natural disasters, such as the catastrophic floods that hit Southwest China in July 2013.

According to Fan’s study, the disaster could have been less severe had the air quality in the region not been so poor.

“Our modeling and simulation results show that if the emissions level had been the same as it was in the late 1970s, the extreme precipitation in the mountainous region would have dropped by up to 40 percent, and only minor precipitation would have occurred in the basin,” Fan explained to the Global Times.

The study of Fan’s team was published in the scientific journal Geophysical Research Letters and was highlighted by other leading international scientific publications like Nature and Science.

Fan first developed her hypothesis when she was watching the news of the 2013 storm in Sichuan, Southwest China, on TV.

“While I grieved over the casualties and damages, I was surprised by the fact that the heavy rainfall mainly occurred downwind in mountainous regions, instead of the broad basin area,” Fan recalled.

This eventually led her to form a team and collect data that would prove her hypothesis right

Smog data shows 92 per cent breathe in unhealthy air

China’s pollution on Google Maps: Smog data shows 92 per cent breathe in unhealthy air … but how does Hong Kong fare?

James Griffiths

A map of pollution levels across China, as of September 3, 2015.

Google may be blocked for Chinese users, but that hasn’t stopped scientists from using the US internet giant’s services to help map China’s pollution problem [1].

Scientists working at the University of California Berkeley and Nanjing University previously mapped hourly pollution data from over 1,500 sites across China – including Hong Kong – to produce a comprehensive smog map of the country’s heavily populated eastern provinces.

“The greatest pollution occurs in the east [of the country], but significant levels are widespread across northern and central China and are not limited to major cities or geological basins,” Robert Rohde and Richard Muller wrote in their paper [2], published in the journal Plos One.

During the period covered by the scientists’ paper, from April to August 2014, 92 per cent of the population of China experienced at least 120 hours of unhealthy air (according to US environmental protection agency standards) and 38 per cent experienced unhealthy air on average.

unnamed (1)

The scientists calculated that the observed air pollution is calculated to contribute “to 1.6 million deaths [per] year in China [4]” or around 17 per cent of all deaths.

Rohde and Muller have now adapted the method used to gather data for their paper, and used it to create a plug-in for Google Maps to display live pollution data across much of China.

“[The] map provides near real-time information on particulate matter air pollution less than 2.5 microns in diameter (PM2.5),” they wrote.

“Under typical conditions, PM2.5 is the most damaging form of air pollution likely to be present, contributing to heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, respiratory infections, and other diseases.”

The researcher’s map for today shows there are several pockets of northern China marked in green which means ‘good air’. Hong Kong is also clearly identified as having ‘good air’. Large swathes of eastern China have ‘moderate’ air.

Hong Kong has had its share of choking smog, according to the latest air quality index report from the Environmental Protection Department. Pollutants including nitrogen dioxide, ozone and PM2.5 exceeded the government limits in various areas of Hong Kong last year, according to the report.

PM2.5 are microscopic particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns that can lodge deep inside a person’s lungs and cause health problems in the long term. It hit a high of 119 micrograms per cubic metre, exceeding the 75-micrograms a day limit.

High levels of nitrogen oxide – a compound mostly coming from vehicle exhaust – peaked at 429 micrograms per cubic metre last year in Causeway Bay. This was more than double the limit of no more than 200 micograms per hour set by the government.

Begone trams and TST promenade! What next? Eiffel Tower?

The old assertion “great minds think alike” – which triggers the riposte: “fools never differ” – comes to mind with recent ideas to ‘improve’ local iconic landmarks.

First of all there’s the astonishing proposal to remove green trams from Central to Admiralty to allow more smoke-spewing trucks and private cars into one of the city’s most polluted areas. Secondly there’s the similarly outrageous idea to put top tourist and residents’ draw, the Tsim Tsa-tsui Promenade, off limits for several years for an upgrade.

In the first case, the ridiculous reasoning is that tram-free roads will reduce traffic flow – but for whom? Cars and trucks. Get rid of the latter and the trams will run freely in a pedestrian-friendly zone in line with city centers in advanced cities worldwide. In the second case, the TST waterfront supposedly needs improving so who cares if all strollers are deprived of the magnificent harbor panorama? Who cares if many tourists stay away for the next three or more years until the work is completed – it’s progress stupid! Hang on, isn’t TST as a tourist magnet a package: the shopping, the buzz and the breathtaking harborside views? And what do we eventually get by closing off this star attraction? It’s not exactly earth-shattering; a performance venue and another restaurant or two. Meanwhile given the great largesse of the developer, pouring money into a no-profit venture, surely, along the line, there should be compensation n’est-ce pas? Well how about squeezing in another tower or two into the adjoining area? Déjà vu anyone?

Back to losing the trams. This piece of genius – to be official-planner considered – came from a retired member of their ilk who runs a consultancy, called “Intellects”. No, I didn’t make this up. Ease dire traffic congestion in central by removing the trams he says.

However an Environmental Protection Department study, under the co-remit of their undersecretary, the capable environmentalist, and former pan-democrat camp legislator, Christine Loh Kung-wai, came to the admirable conclusion that private cars were the main culprit in traffic congestion in Central. Heaven forbid the thought that senior town planners thinking of their own chauffeur-driven convenience at the expense of nearly everyone else? Banish the thought! How could hugely paid officials whose job it is to plan according to the welfare of the public sacrifice the needs and convenience of the millions for their benefit? Unthinkable.

The counter argument to the continued running of trams is that they are slow, rattling, nostalgic remnants of a bygone age that have outlived their usefulness. Why use that form of public transport when there’s the MTR? Convenience; more frequent stops than buses, and many more stations than the MTR. Then there’s the view for tourists and locals alike at a speed which allows passengers to take it in. Not least there’s the heritage value, an undoubted tourism asset is their age and uniqueness – the only two-deck tram service in the world. Lastly they are pollution-free road vehicles, and that’s where the world is going. Trams are coming back.

Let’s not forget that for civil service and government transport decision-makers MTR trumps trams. This proposal could be the thin end of the wedge. Then why not in future expand the tram-free zone; then why not get rid of the dinosaurs altogether?

If these plans go ahead there’s more at stake than temporary shut down of the promenade and part loss of the trams. I mean not everybody loves the TST Avenue of Stars and many people rarely of never take the trams, which are slow, rattly, and through their open windows expose people to highly polluted streets.