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Hong Kong recycling industry faces uncertainty over waste charging scheme

Yeung Man-ching, 21, a student at the Hong Kong Baptist University, starts her morning by bringing plastic bottles and waste paper from home to throw them into the recycling bin on campus. She has been recycling garbage for more than two years and says she has recycled over a hundred bottles.

“I always ask my family to collect and clean the plastic bottles. From where I live in Tai Wai, there are no recycling bins downstairs at my house, so I can only take them back to school to be recycled,” she said.

Yeung Man-ching drops off cleaned bottles at a recycling bin at the Hong Kong Baptist University. She recycles three times a week with what her family has collected.

Yeung said that she once passed a food waste recycling machine in Sha Tin with a long queue, which intrigued her. She had never thought about recycling before and decided then to start recycling plastic bottles.

“I believe that after the waste-charging scheme is officially implemented, more people will be willing to recycle,” she added. “It’s time for Hong Kong’s recycling system to improve.”

Recycling in Hong Kong is finally on track, alongside many expectations of its continuous development with the introduction of a new waste charging scheme, whose implementation was pushed back until August this year. But experts say the city still has a long way to go before it can call itself green.

“I have noted many discussions and questions raised by various sectors in the community about Municipal Solid Waste Charging, and many people expressed their concerns to me that the general public do not understand how waste charging will be implemented,” said Secretary for Environment and Ecology Tse Chin-wan in a media session on Jan. 19.

“As a responsible government, we would like to implement waste charging successfully and smoothly,” said Tse. “Therefore, I believe it is a liable act for us to put more time into public education.”

The “pay-as-you-throw” charging scheme was first proposed by the government almost 20 years ago. The plan requires residents to purchase government-approved garbage bags to encourage individuals and businesses to reduce the amount of waste they generate and promote responsible waste disposal.

Hong Kong threw out 4.06 million tonnes of municipal solid waste in 2022, the largest component of municipal solid waste is food, followed by plastics and paper. An average of 1.5kg of domestic waste were thrown out per person per day, or around 550kg a year, according to a report by the Environmental Protection Department.

Chung Shan-shan, a professor from the geography department at HKBU, said, “Hong Kong wants to handle recycling and some activities have been launched, but it’s unpredictable to see whether it will be put into effect or will vanish at the last minute.”

“But it’s undeniable that there is progress. The priority for Hong Kong is to stop producing too much waste, which Hong Kong has not yet been able to achieve,” she said.

The need for waste reduction is becoming more imminent if the volume of waste continues to increase at the present rate, the existing landfills in Hong Kong will be saturated in six to ten years.

Hong Kong can produce 60 tonnes of paper beverage cartons a day, while a factory could only recycle 5-6 tons per day on average, according to Mil Mill.

Gary Cheung Yik-wai, 40,  marketing manager of Mil Mill, Hong Kong’s only drinks carton recycler located at Fanling, is concerned about the recycling systems once the waste charging scheme launches.

Cheung Yik-wai speaks to The Young Reporter at Mil Mill on Jan. 24. He has been working for the factory for over four years.

He said that some people may rely on Mil Mill to sort out garbage whenever they send a “Cat Bus” travelling to housing estates to collect recyclables, even though certain items are not recyclable by Mil Mill, such as electronic appliances.

Mil Mill has been operating in Fanling for over five months after their lease expired at their former Yuen Long site in September 2023.
Mil Mill’s “Cat Bus” collects beverage cartons from Green@Community on weekdays and travels to different housing estates to carry out recycling and education work on the weekend.

“With the enactment of the waste charging scheme in the coming months, the amount of recovery may rise, but the quality of recycling items may decline,” Cheung said. “I think it's bittersweet because more people will give us non-recyclable stuff since they don’t want to pay for it,  after the scheme launches. At that time, we would then need to pay for throwing all the trash sent to us.”

Cheung Yik-wai expressed hope for the development of the recycling industry in Hong Kong.
After paper waste is turned into fibre in Mil Mill, it is handed over to manufacturers in Vietnam to make recycled paper towels and sent back to Mil Mill for sale.

“Although there is propaganda in Hong Kong, there is a lack of education and recycling awareness. Society needs rules and punitive regulations. In contrast to Japan, everyone knows what waste should be classified, not only kitchen waste but also plastic. This is due to the obligation of Japanese people to be educated from childhood,” he said.

The Education Bureau's annual Environmental Report in 2022 shows that they have launched a series of environmental education projects in primary and secondary schools, such as organising exhibitions and competitions.

“Students may just know that they need to recycle, but they may not know the motivation behind it. They would be educated about recycling but it may not develop into a habit,” Yeung commented.

“Recycling is a responsibility to society, from government officials to residents, from property management to families. We should all work together,” said Cheung.

As for the adaptability and feasibility of recycling in Hong Kong, Cheung said we should not take ourselves too lightly because there are only two places in the world where beverage cartons can be recycled, one is Japan, the other is Hong Kong.

As part of the government’s Green@Community initiative, Green@Sheung Wan is one of 36 Recycling Stores around Hong Kong and has been operating since 2020.

Managed by the Environmental Protection Department, Green@Community is a community of recycling networks.

A representative of Green@Community in Sheung Wan said he remains optimistic about Hong Kong’s future recycling system. Since Green@Community’s launching nine years ago, they have had many guidelines on the recycle bins for what can be recycled, like the cleaned beverage cartons, and in which bins they should be placed.

A row of bins indicating which bins people can drop off recyclables at Green@Sheung Wan.

“The recycling rate is rising from 31% to 32% in 2023, and the recycling situation in Hong Kong will become more and more optimistic,” said Leung.

Chung said that, although recycling rates have increased, Hong Kong should not be complacent. “We must keep reducing waste from the source. It is very important.”

“The most important thing is that Hong Kong society needs to have an atmosphere of recycling. A lot of things can be recycled and we shouldn’t let "useful" things become garbage,” said Leung.

《The Young Reporter》

The Young Reporter (TYR) started as a newspaper in 1969. Today, it is published across multiple media platforms and updated constantly to bring the latest news and analyses to its readers.


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