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In Hong Kong, a Wasted Chance to Recycle Glass


In Hong Kong, a Wasted Chance to Recycle Glass

Published: January 29, 2012

HONG KONG — April Lai is a woman with a mission. Every Thursday and Saturday, she spends 2.5 hours at a public trash collection point in the Wan Chai district of Hong Kong, home to some of the city’s most colorful nightlife, and scores of bars, clubs and restaurants.

Bettina Wassener/The International Herald Tribune

Demolition waste and glass are turned into bricks at Tiostone Environmental in Hong Kong.

Her goal: to collect glass. Wine bottles, beer bottles, jam jars, soy sauce bottles — she takes them all.

Most of the glass is brought in from a few dozen bars in Wan Chai and in Soho, another bar-studded neighborhood in this Asian financial hub. And sometimes Hong Kong residents come to her little spot among the skyscrapers to bring their offerings. When they do, Ms. Lai, a 50-something bundle of energy, beams. “When people show their support, it is so encouraging,” she said.

Each haul from the bars brings in between two and three tons of glass on average — not bad, given that the resources of Green Glass Green , the tiny nongovernmental organization managed by Ms. Lai, extend to just a few part-time drivers and volunteers.

The destination for all this glass is Tiostone Environmental , whose small factory on the outskirts of Hong Kong makes paving stones from trash.

Founded by three young entrepreneurs in 2005, Tiostone turned about 100,000 tons of waste from the construction industry and 4,000 tons of waste glass last year into paving stones for Hong Kong sidewalks.

In addition to Green Glass Green, several large corporations, a small number of housing developments, hospitals and the Hong Kong Airport Authority also contribute waste glass, said Dixon Chan, who spent several years on a Hong Kong Polytechnic University research project on the uses of construction waste and glass before setting up Tiostone.

In nearby Macao, the government, which last year started a glass-collection initiative, also has begun to ship glass to Tiostone.

It is a symbiotic relationship: Tiostone needs glass as an ingredient for its “eco-bricks.” And the company’s demand for used glass gives a raison d’être to the nascent glass collection efforts.

But it is a recent pairing, and it remains hampered by widespread public indifference and bureaucratic hurdles — illustrating how in many Asian countries, waste management is struggling to keep pace with the rapid rise in consumption, and the resulting garbage, that has accompanied economic growth. Recycling has been a feature of everyday life in Europe for decades, but in many developing economies — or even in developed economies like Hong Kong’s — it has yet to gain real momentum.

To be fair, Hong Kong has improved its overall recycling rate for things like paper, plastics and metals to about 50 percent in 2010 from 40 percent in 2004. But the recycling rate for glass is a paltry 3 percent, reflecting the fact that most businesses, households and politicians do not see glass as a potential resource.

By contrast, Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland recycle about 90 percent of their glass. The E.U. average was 67 percent in 2009, for a total of 11 million tons, or 25 billion glass bottles and jars collected that year, according tostatistics compiled by FEVE , a glass container industry association in Europe. In the United States, about one-third of all glass containers are recycled.

To some extent, Hong Kong’s poor performance on glass recycling can be explained by the sheer cost of collecting the stuff — glass is heavy and expensive to transport. Ready access to raw materials from mainland China means it can be less expensive to make new glass than to convert old glass into new containers.

However, it also highlights a wider phenomenon: Even though environmental issues are advancing up political and public agendas across Asia, they are generally still not at the top of the list. Policy action is often reactive and patchy rather than visionary and decisive, and not backed by the sort of financing, business incentives and sustained public education campaigns that could make a real difference.

When environmental issues do make it onto the public radar, they generally relate to health concerns like air and water pollution, rather than efforts to reduce waste and preserve resources.

There are important exceptions: Japan, South Korea and Taiwan boast sophisticated recycling programs for diverse types of waste.

But Hong Kong, like many other Asian economies, has struggled to get a handle on its trash. Policy makers in the city have known for years that it will soon run out of landfill space.

Despite this, Hong Kong residents keep generating more garbage every year. The city’s seven million inhabitants produced 5.7 million tons of trash in 2004,according to government statistics . By 2010, the amount had swelled to 6.93 million tons.

On a per-capita basis, this means Hong Kong is far more wasteful than other developed societies.

The fact that Green Glass Green, which began its collections 18 months ago, receives some government financing shows that the Hong Kong Environmental Protection Department is starting to take glass recycling seriously, Ms. Lai said.

At the same time, however, glass collection efforts in the city remain on a small scale. Green Glass Green, for example, is able to stage only two collection rounds a week. Ms. Lai is struggling to obtain permission to place collection bins (the sort that are ubiquitous in Europe) in public locations that would allow people to drop off glass whenever they want to.

Many of the bars around Hong Kong remain indifferent to the concept of setting aside bottles for separate collection, she said, and a program backed by the government and the Hong Kong hotel association to collect glass from hotels, started in 2008, has had only lackluster uptake.

Tiostone, meanwhile, got the go-ahead to manufacture its bricks in 2010, when government specifications allowing recycled material to be used in paving stones took effect.

“But we could use a lot more glass — it’s one of the main things that’s holding us back,” Mr. Chan said. Moreover, the recycled-materials mix is restricted to floor paving stones and cannot be used for walls or slope reinforcements.

“Things are moving, but they are moving very, very slowly,” Mr. Chan said.

Ms. Lai, he said, is doing a great job. “But we need 1,000 Aprils,” he said, referring to her.

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