Written by TC Li and Camille Fabre
Soon after the Hong Kong government released the latest Waste Blueprint for Hong Kong 2035, we at GREEN Hospitality dived in. From our in-depth research on the issues of municipal solid waste (MSW), plastic waste, and food waste, and the knowledge dissemination and exchange at subsequent events, we have always strived to understand the root causes of the waste crisis, while exploring innovative solutions with stakeholders in the hospitality industry and the experts who share their insights at our events.
And so naturally, we wanted to know whether the Hong Kong government has recalibrated their goals and solutions in the new blueprint. But we were left dumbfounded by the lack of actions and an actionable timeline for the ambitious goal of achieving “zero landfill” by 2035.
First of all, we were surprised to see that the main goals presented in the new blueprint were identical to the ones in the previous blueprint: “to gradually reduce the per capita MSW disposal by 40-45% and increase the recovery rate to about 55%” (p.3). Not only are the figures exactly the same, but the new blueprint doesn’t even state the baseline for its goal of reducing the per capita MSW disposal. In 2013, the goal was to reach 0.8kg per person per day in 2022. In 2019, Hong Kong produced 1.47kg per capita per day (1) against 1.35kg when the previous blueprint was released, and against 1.27kg in 2011, which served as the baseline value for the old blueprint. So under this time, we kept generating more waste.
To the left: Target for MSW daily generation for the 2022 blueprint. Source: EPD, 2013.
To the right: Evolution of the generation of the daily per capita disposal rate of MSW. Source: EPD, 2019
About the recovery rate, about 29% (1.64 million tonnes) of the total MSW was “recovered” in Hong Kong in 2019 (2). Among these, about 12% was recycled locally and 88% was exported to the Mainland and other economies for recycling (3). Here as well, the government fell short on the 2022 target: 29% is far from 55%, and most of it is still exported to Mainland China.
So what will be different this time?
Well, here’s the thing. As more and more developed economies are shifting to a circular economy mindset (4), and looking at sustainability as an opportunity to fuel the recovery of their economies after the COVID-19 wake-up call, Hong Kong still applies old recipes to old problems that shouldn’t even be considered as problems, but as new opportunities.
From a policy perspective, no strong stance has been taken on basic waste management steps, such as food waste segregation for example. It is important to remind ourselves that the efficiency of the future incinerator will depend on the moisture content of the waste it is fed with, and that food waste also contaminates recyclables that could be recovered in material recovery facilities (MRFs). Same for the Municipal Solid Waste Charging Scheme. The law has been halted in summer 2020, and we were surprised that no timeline was announced for what seems to be the policy backbone of this blueprint. Indeed, the medium-term target is expected to be reached “by implementing charging for disposal of MSW”. Fun fact: a “Source Separation of Domestic Waste Commendation Scheme” was launched throughout the territory in 2005, and the idea of municipal waste charging was first announced in 2004. When reading the 2005 Legislative Council Panel on Environmental Affairs about the Policy Framework for the Management of Municipal Solid Waste in Hong Kong (5), it all sounds too familiar, with “Hong Kong having an urgent waste problem to tackle”. The success of the other policies presented in the blueprint—like the Producers Responsibility Schemes (PRS)—is questionable, not least because of the restrictions to a very limited range of products and their arguably limited impact. All these policies are good tools, but they are not even close to the systemic strategy needed to reach “zero landfill” in 2035.
Except from policies, waste-to-energy infrastructures are at the forefront of the fight against waste. According to the information presented in the blueprint, we should reach a total MSW treatment capacity of 4,240 tonnes per day in 2025 (see Figure 1 below for the breakdown).
If this sounds like a lot, consider that we were sending 11,057 tonnes per day of MSW to landfills in 2019. This means that we would need a 61.65% decrease in waste generation in order to get rid of landfills. And this is under the provision that “aforementioned waste-to-energy infrastructure with adequate treatment capacity can be in place by around 2035”(p.18). Even the government admits it: “Although we have already made significant breakthroughs in the past few years with many sizable facilities [...], we still fall short of sufficient environmental infrastructure.” (p.2)
Actually, we don’t fall short of infrastructures, we have everything we need. We fall short of a comprehensive and inclusive strategy for reducing waste and transitioning from a linear consumption model to a truly circular economy. This means realizing that the blueprint as it is is a list of old tools that has shown limited results for 15 years.
These tools were designed to solve the landfill problem, not the waste problem. In Singapore, the goal is not to reach “zero landfill”, it is to become a “zero waste Nation” (6). This is the type of leap we need to take: there needs to be a radical change in approach in Hong Kong. The tantamount of waste we produce is the root problem. The landfills getting full are just the symptom of a much deeper and complex issue that we should all take part in solving.
From our experience, feasible implementation of practical actions are often born out of constructive discussions, and so we organised our first Open Think Tank, on 25 March, with the hope of amassing collective wisdom to fill in the gaps in the waste blueprint.
More Transparency and Coordinated Governance
Today in Hong Kong, the responsibility of waste management is scattered between several departments, namely the Environmental Protection Department (EPD) and the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD).
Source: Dao Sun LEE, 2020
This current institutional structure has very concrete consequences on the efficiency of the waste management, but also on the message that is sent to the different parts of the community, as there is no one single overarching governmental department setting the standards and overseeing the actual work of waste disposal and recycling, according to the participants. For example, participants at the Open Think Tank who are hospitality business owners said that, despite following the FEHD’s guidelines on using the proper disposal bag for their waste and disposing the waste at the designated collection points, they were told by the EPD that they should be disposing of their waste elsewhere. Confusing messaging from various governmental departments, lack of transparency and the lack of a unified actor disseminating relevant information for businesses for example can be a deterrent, and our participants spoke from their own experience.
Despite the government’s proposed solution of utilising its communications campaigns to accelerate waste reduction and recycling, participants at our Open Think Tank spoke of the ineffectiveness of such campaigns, at least from a small business’ point of view. Very often, information on the government’s new waste reduction initiatives is not very well disseminated, and people interested in contributing to the effort are compelled to visit the websites of relevant government departments.
This could be improved by the establishment of one single department that is responsible for the oversight of the whole waste management process, from prevention to collection and disposal, with more harmonised policies and standards. This could be done by creating a new cross-department governmental agency under the leadership of the EPD, or by extending the prerogatives of the EPD over other departments when it comes to waste management.
The creation of such institutions are usually cited as an element of good waste management governance (7) as they can take the lead on:
establishing the same interpretation of the laws across regional and sectoral entities,
having some overarching level of control to ensure consistency of approach throughout the territory and the different sectors,
facilitating better cooperation between governmental agencies and non-governmental actors,
facilitating communication and exchanges of experiences and enabling collective learning, both locally and with other best players in the region.
With a single actor setting a clear, detailed and comprehensive strategy; actionning relevant policy and educational tools; coordinating the different aspects of waste management; leveraging the potential of the current waste management infrastructure to their fullest (8); and disseminating clear guidelines and rules to the different actors across the waste management supply chain in Hong Kong (property developers, businesses, households, malls, waste collectors, recycling facilities, street cleaners…), one can also hope that this will develop more transparency and trust in the waste recovery system, because it is a crucial prerequisite that is much needed today, especially in the context of the future implementation of the Municipal Solid Waste Charging Scheme.
For example, the EPD is not the only department overseeing waste collection and recycling. Depending on the locality, the bins are set up and managed by four different departments, including the EPD, the FEHD, the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD), and the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD), and only plastics that are collected by the EPD would be sent to the EcoPark for further processing (9). Hence the not-so-uncommon sight of garbage collectors putting the plastic recyclables in the general bin, which totally defeats the purpose of asking citizens to segregate their waste in the first place.
Participants at the Open Think Tank also floated some actionable ideas on waste reduction in the hospitality sector. For example, hospitality business owners can provide their suppliers with reusable crates in lieu of single-use Styrofoam boxes for product delivery.
Financial Incentives and Collective Responsibility
Financial incentives are usually at the core of switching mindsets and behaviours, and this is why the government rightfully puts the Municipal Solid Waste Charging Scheme at the core of its strategy to reduce waste production. But penalizing is not the only financial incentive that can be proven effective in Hong Kong.
Participants in the Open Think Tank expressed support for the business community to take the lead in improving recycling and other waste management practices (e.g., segregation), to the extent that they should be supported in their efforts by the government. A practical first step would be to advocate for a consultation with small business owners in order to start a scheme to support better waste management practices, especially among the hospitality industry and the 15,000 restaurants and eateries it encompasses.
During the Open Think Tank, our participants suggested concrete examples of where support could be offered: for businesses that are already investing in water filters to replace single-use plastic-bottled water as well as other waste management measures, the government can offer subsidies or reimburse a certain percentage of related expenses for example. The same could be done for restaurants that hire a private contractor in order to compost their food waste. Part of the cost could be covered by the government to encourage this behaviour until the government is able to roll-out a territory-wide food waste segregation and recycling scheme.
To be able to offer these subsidies and reimbursements, the government could consider introducing an eco-tax, such as the MSW charging scheme, which essentially will create tax revenue that will be used on waste management issues. Environmental conservation (and the broader context of sustainability) is a collective responsibility. Just as businesses should not externalise social and environmental costs, citizens should play a part in contributing to a better waste management system, not least by paying for the amount of waste they generate and the cost of the infrastructures needed in order to properly dispose of them.
Leveraging and Scaling the Solutions Already in Place
In order to solve the waste problem in Hong Kong, the government does not have to reinvent the wheel. In fact, Hong Kong's business scene already has a plethora of proven solutions and more recent innovations to counter the waste problem. They have been started and operated by individuals and organisations that mean business when they talk about recycling and transitioning towards a circular economy. Instead of pouring funds into new and often short-lived projects, the government should use its funds more wisely by investing in the scale-up of existing, proven solutions, and provide non-monetary support on administration, talent acquisition and retention, business acumen etc.
In fact, this was proposed by one of the participants, who, as a hospitality business owner, has been paying a recycling business for proper waste management and treatment.
Actively Promote the Circularity Mindset
More coordinated governance and financial incentives and disincentives can only go so far without behaviour change. While modern-day Hong Kong is a highly consumerist society, it wasn’t always like that. In alleyways from Central to Sham Shui Po, small businesses offering repair services for anything from watches to umbrellas and shoes still exist.
The key is not necessarily to bring back times of austerity, but to promote a culture that would think twice before disposing of something or preoccupied with buying new things. As a book and a documentary film, The Story of Stuff highlights the negative social and environmental impact of the wasteful, linear economic model. What if we incorporate education on our wasteful lifestyle habit into the schools? An example is the “ECG Circular Fashion Education Programme”, a bilingual educational toolkit for teachers and students, curated by Redress, a Hong Kong-registered charity that works to prevent and transform textile waste to catalyse a circular economy.
Would the EU’s “Right to Repair” regulation be applicable to Hong Kong? The Producer Responsibility Schemes proposed by the government are similar in a way, except that the Right to Repair gives consumers the power to demand that their products be repaired, instead of just being collected by producers and distributed to recyclers with little transparency on waste treatment.
Now is the time for systems change. The business mindset is changing: there is a consensus among businesses that waste is an issue, that there is a business case for climate action. The government shouldn’t be shy in spearheading a new vision for Hong Kong when it comes to waste management and, more broadly, a change in mindset towards more circularity and inclusivity in Hong Kong’s society.
(4) See for example the EU.
(6) Singapore Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources (2019) Zero Waste Masterplan. URL
(7) UNEP (2015) Global Waste Management Outlook, p.185. URL
(8) So far, OPARK 1 has been used for the First Phase of the Pilot Scheme on Food Waste Collection and processes 90 to 100 tonnes of food waste per day compared to a maximum capacity of 200 tpd. Source: Legco
(9) Fabian, N and Lou, LIT. 2019. The Struggle for Sustainable Waste Management in Hong Kong: 1950s–2010s. Worldwide Waste: Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies, 2(1): 10, 1–12. P.7. URL