Harold Yip first had his idea for Hong Kong’s own circular waste paper system back in 2010. With his background in FMCG, Yip later joined paper brand Double A as General Manager. On the brink of almost becoming the CEO of Fook Woo Paper (later renamed Integrated Waste Solutions Group), Yip decided instead to co-found with a friend the Secure Information Disposal Services Ltd (SSID), a confidential document recycler that utilises a proprietary RFID system that allows the end-to-end tracking of confidential documents, from pick-up to destruction.
It was from the work of SSID that Yip realised the potential of pulping, not just for confidential documents but also beverage cartons, whose composite materials, designed for water resistance and durability, make them hard to recycle. Restricted by international laws to be exported as waste, the beverage cartons were typically landfilled in Hong Kong.
That prompted Yip to establish Mil Mil, the city’s first pulp mill with a capacity to process composite materials, and a solar-powered one at that, in 2019. Through an agreement with a paper factory in Vietnam, Mil Mil would supply pulp in return for toilet paper and paper towels made with the pulp, which Mil Mil then purchase and sell in Hong Kong.
In its third year running, Mil Mil receives waste paper and drinks cartons from close to 600 recycling points, including the EPD’s GREEN@COMMUNITY recycling network. Today, it processes over 200,000 beverage cartons (2-3 tonnes) per day, helping Hong Kong reduce its carbon footprint by more than 5,000 tonnes every month. According to the SCMP, Mil Mil has the capacity to process 60 of the 67 tonnes of used beverage cartons Hong Kong produces daily.
And that’s when Yip’s vision of scaling his solution of waste paper circularity was crushed: Hong Kong Science & Technology Parks Corporation (HKSTP), the government-backed landlord of Mil Mil, announced on 19 September – less than a week after Mil Mil celebrated its third anniversary – that it would not renew the lease, and asked the company to leave its premises in four months.
The cessation of Mil Mil’s operation will mean more than just a huge dent in Hong Kong’s capacity to recycle the city’s considerable amount of paper waste. It will also mean the loss of the technology and knowledge that can be passed on to accelerate the innovation of more circular solutions, in order to reach the Government’s 2035 goals for "Waste Reduction‧Resources Circulation‧Zero Landfill”, as well as its 2050 carbon neutrality goals. To have a company that successfully induced behavioural change in recycling amongst Hong Kong residents, and then to have it shuttered, is a huge shame and a lost opportunity in creating a financially sustainable circular economy around waste.
At a time of unprecedented brain drain, Hong Kong needs to do more than opening up borders and easing quarantine to revive its status as the international hub for talents and innovation. It needs to showcase that it possesses the knowledge and solutions to help entrepreneurs, SMEs, and corporations to overcome various businesses challenges, so that they can scale and contribute to the local economy, while levering on the city’s development as a green finance hub. The consequence of inaction is more loss in talent and innovations, rendering Hong Kong less competitive regionally and internationally.
And really, who wouldn’t want more talents on their own turf? Upon hearing the news of Mil Mil’s pending closure, Singapore was quick to beckon. But Yip declined, claiming that his recycling work has only given him a stronger sense of belonging to Hong Kong. As the HKSTP’s sole shareholder, the Hong Kong Government can exercise its rights as partial owners to influence HKSTP’s decision-making process, and hold it accountable to its commitment to forging “new paths for ‘Innovated, Designed, and Made in Hong Kong’ creations to proudly take shape and change the world”. Likewise, with representatives being amongst HKSTP’s board of directors, the Government must exercise its board duties to steer the company towards a direction that can help it tackle both short-term and long-term challenges. The government doesn’t have to be involved in HKSTP’s day-to-day operations, but it – as both shareholder and board – has the critical role to play in making sure HKSTP makes judicious use of its resources and prudent decisions to revive and support Hong Kong’s ecosystem of innovation.
Despite the HK$3.5 million he received from the Hong Kong Government’s Recycling Fund (on the condition that Mil Mil reached its recycling quota), Yip had to fork out some HK$7 million more to purchase the machinery for the pulp mill. He took that risk to found Mil Mil obviously because he saw the business potential of recycling in Hong Kong, but also because he found meaning in the work he did, and that he really just wanted to do something for Hong Kong.
In the short window that we have to achieve resource circularity and carbon neutrality goals, a mission-driven entrepreneur like Harold Yip is the kind of talent and spirit we need more of to accelerate a green recovery for Hong Kong. Moreover, Mil Mil is a circular solution that can be scaled and replicated elsewhere, establishing Hong Kong’s status as a hub for sustainability innovations as well as sustainable finance. Here, the government must not underestimate its influence in driving positive change.
*TC Li, Head of Thought Leadership at GREEN Hospitality and the author of this article, has also submitted a shorter version of the article as a letter to the SCMP, published on 26 September 2022. The letter can be accessed here.