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Responsibilities of the Hospitality Industry in the Municipal Solid Waste Crisis in Hong Kong


There is a reason that the rapidly growing tourism and hospitality sector was made a part of the “Four Key Industries”: In 2018, the city attracted more than 65 million tourists, with an increase of 11.4% compared with 2017; in August 2019, there were around 300 hotels in Hong Kong, providing 83,100 rooms, and about 17,000 restaurants. Combined, the sector accounted for 4.5% of Hong Kong’s total GDP. Equally significant, however, is the sector’s contribution to the city’s total municipal solid waste (MSW) generation. While the percentage of household waste in the total MSW production in Hong Kong has been steady during the last 10 years, waste generation from the commercial sector, which includes hotels and restaurants, generated 3,220 tonnes of waste per day, accounting for 34.5% of the total MSW in Hong Kong in 2017. 


This report aims to explore how the waste crisis came to be, the current situation concerning the infrastructures and main actors involved, the roles that the hospitality and tourism industry can play in alleviating the garbage pressure on Hong Kong, and the business possibilities that could further reinforce the industry’s role as an economic power in the city.


The Waste Crisis in Hong Kong

Population increase and economic development are among the factors that influence the MSW production of a city. But as part of the high-income group, as defined by the World Bank, Hong Kong’s waste management system and current waste crisis can also be attributed to its unique characteristics, such as its high density of population, its limited land space, its rapid development as a service-based economy, and its historical political heritage as a British colony.


The pro-economic growth mindset that began to gain prevalence from the 1970s was also coupled with the colonial government’s hesitation to take strong measures to reduce commercial waste, fearing the loss in competitiveness against the neighboring Guangdong province, where labor and production costs were cheaper. Even today, almost no environmental laws affect business operations, with the exception of the 2008 “Product Eco-responsibility Ordinance” and the introduction of a fee for plastic bags under the “Producer Responsibility Schemes”. From waste management to recycling, the tools rolled out by the government mainly consist of communication campaigns that fail to engage the public, and policies that largely place the cost and responsibilities on individuals, without providing the incentives to recycle and waste less. Further compounding the problem is the fact that the city has virtually no local recycling capacity as a result of a lack of economic incentives, rising rents, land scarcity, a shrinking labor market, and the absence of a local market for low-value recycled materials.


The Creative Solutions that can Enable the Hospitality Industry to Drive Positive Impact

The hospitality and tourism industry takes a specific shape in Hong Kong, but it can do a lot when it comes to democratizing and using the 3Rs (Reduce, Recycle, Reuse) so as to reduce its MSW production and change the habits of its guests. And the hospitality and tourism industry has the responsibility to tackle the waste crisis in Hong Kong, especially if we take into consideration that the problem can be accounted for by two factors relating to the industry: the short-term urban-type tourism whose success and growth doesn’t depend on environmental preservation, and the tremendous rise in takeaway habits and home delivery as a result of a busy lifestyle and the continuous rise in rents. 


Although there is no centralized data collection or recent detailed study about the waste generated specifically by the hospitality industry in Hong Kong, the literature review of a study conducted in 2014 found that the bulk of solid waste in hotels was food waste, plastic waste, and dry waste like paper, glass, and metal. 


Fortunately, there is not a dearth of businesses spearheading creative, sustainable initiatives to tackle the waste issue in the hospitality industry, such as adopting zero-waste approaches; composting surplus food, which can be used as nutrients for soil at urban farms on the rooftops and in the basements; banning single-use plastic; and helping with resource recovery in the recycling of dry waste.


Admittedly, the lack of data availability poses a challenge to building an efficient waste management system, but hospitality businesses in Hong Kong and all over the world, partly in response to the increase in people’s awareness of sustainability and circularity, have demonstrated the possibility of waste reduction through creative approaches, which can simultaneously alleviate inequalities and influence policies and regulations. 


The Business Case for Sustainability in the Hospitality Industry

As it turns out, sustainability measures can also translate into a competitive advantage for the hotels that implement them. As eco-tourism continues to gain momentum, and as the younger generations transform the consumer landscape towards brand loyalty based on companies’ commitment to sustainability, innovation in sustainability is now what it takes for companies to gain a competitive advantage. Noteworthy is also that this competitive advantage is more than just customer attraction and retention, but also cost reduction, which is more crucial to the survival of the hospitality industry now than ever, due to the economic downturn brought about by the novel coronavirus outbreak.


It must be said that the waste crisis in Hong Kong cannot be tackled by the hospitality and tourism industry alone. Government policies and regulations that promote and incentivize all actors involved to reduce, reuse, and recycle waste, the development of relevant infrastructure, as well as waste-related data collection and sharing across government agencies, are central to the success of creating an effective waste management system. However, through an in-depth exploration of the innovative sustainability measures some actors in the hospitality industry have implemented with various levels of success, and the economic advantages that can be reaped from these sustainability measures, this report hopes to highlight the special role that the industry can play to mitigate not just environmental pollution, but also social inequalities and climate change while gaining competitive advantage.

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