Hong Kong’s trash problem was once again brought to the fore after Typhoon Mangkhut ripped through the city on Sunday, scattering styrofoam and other synthetic material far and wide.

The tropical cyclone brought a storm surge of up to 3.9 metres that flooded low-lying areas with marine refuse.

Photo: 賴振邦/Facebook.

Mangkhut hit the city with gale force winds, tossing styrofoam pieces into the air and coating coastal communities with a layer of white litter. Other polluting materials were also swept into the city by the floods, including plastic containers and foam blocks.

A recycling company, Chun Sing, said that they picked up around 0.3 tonnes of waste on Monday, among which were plastic bottles from 1998 and documents from 1995.

Cheap styrofoam boxes are commonly used in fish markets as containers and are often carried into the sea by the wind. The material is also widely used for disposable food containers.

When disposed of at sea, the non-biodegradable polystyrene gradually breaks down into smaller pieces, or microplastics, that can be ingested by marine wildlife. A report from the Education University in April found that 60 per cent of flathead grey mullet – a popular fish on Hong Kong dinner tables – contained large amounts of microplastics, with some containing up to 80 pieces.

Photo: 賴振邦/Facebook.

Ho Ka-po from environmental NGO Green Sense told HKFP that if left uncleared, the polystyrene could enter the marine ecosystem and from there make it into our food chain: “The way we treat the sea will pounce back on us eventually,” she said. “To avoid plastic staying in nature, we have to first stop using it.”

“We think the typhoon is a natural disaster to all living things, but man-made trash [covering] the coastal area is a human disaster.”

Heng Fa Chuen estate after Super Typhoon Mangkhut. Photo: Alex Hofford.

After Typhoon Hato last year, environmentalists decried the spread of waste swept up by gale force winds. An environmental NGO, Ocean Recovery Alliance, filmed the aftermath of the storm at the waterfront Heng Fa Cheun housing estate near Chai Wan. They said that 95 per cent of the plastic waste was styrofoam and plastic bottles, adding: “It all came from us, though, not the typhoon. Hato just sent it.”

The estate felt the brunt of the storm again this year, as eastern gales pummelled the residential area with further refuse.

Environmental campaigner Alex Hofford told HKFP that the super typhoon this year caused more environmental damage than Hato: “In terms of the destruction wrought on the Heng Fa Chuen estate, Typhoon Mangkhut was way worse than Typhoon Hato.”

He added that the government should consider land reclamation to prevent further damage to the estate: “Clearly this is climate change at work, and the government needs to recognise that.”

Jennifer Creery

Jennifer Creery is a Hong Kong-born British journalist, interested in minority rights and urban planning. She holds a BA in English at King's College London and has studied Mandarin at National Taiwan University.