Passers-by could easily mistake a green bin outside a bulk-buying store in Sai Ying Pun for a regular trash receptacle, until they recall that Hong Kong’s regulation bins are bright orange. 

Photo: Almond Li/HKFP.

Another oddity about the green bin on High Street is the padlock and chain securing the lid. One person’s trash is another person’s treasure.

Photo: Almond Li/HKFP.

The bin is actually a food waste collection container, owned and operated by Eco Community Promotion Association Limited (ECPAL). The non-profit transports the organic waste every day to O.Park 1 in North Lantau, Hong Kong’s first organic resources recovery centre, which converts food waste into biogas for electricity and the residue into compost. 

It is one of eight barrels ECPAL has placed in residential areas in Hong Kong, co-founder Ivan Tai told HKFP. He said the bins were padlocked because the NGO runs a subscription-based food waste recycling programme, with each household paying HK$110 per month to get their food waste handled and processed. Subscribers are given the passcode to unlock the bin. 

Ivan Tai, co-founder of Eco Community Promotion Association Limited. Photo: Almond Li/HKFP.

“We want to educate people that they need to pay a price for their waste,” said Tai, a 24-year-old who recently graduated from the University of Hong Kong with a surveying degree. He first got into food composting when he interned for ECPAL’s precursor, a non-profit called Hong Kong Community Composting, in 2019. He decided last year to take over the organisation under the new name after learning that his former bosses and mentors were leaving the city.

Tai said ECPAL is the city’s only food waste collection programme that runs on a subscription basis. Charging people for waste is not a popular concept in Hong Kong, but the business model sends a message.

“Our subscribers are willing to pay us a fee because they understand that the food waste collection service has a cost… otherwise it’ll not be sustainable,” Tai said.

ECPAL also cooperates with businesses such as restaurants and shops that sell food products. Commercial subscribers pay a slightly higher fee. 

Tai met HKFP at a coffee shop in a high-end shopping mall in Tsim Sha Tsui, one of his clients. Distinctive bins had set up to instruct customers to dispose of their waste accordingly. 

A designated bin for compost at a coffee shop, which partnered with Eco Community Promotion Association Limited. Photo: Almond Li/HKFP.

Tai said Hong Kong was “very behind” in terms of food waste recycling compared to other places such as Japan and Taiwan, where residents were well-educated about the practice. 

The 2022 goal 

In the early 2010s, the government rolled out a 10-year roadmap to reduce waste and promote a greener and more sustainable lifestyle under the slogan “Use less, waste less.” It pledged to cut the amount of food waste by 40 per cent by 2022.  

According to plan laid out by the Environment Bureau published in 2014, Hongkongers threw away 3,600 tonnes of food waste every day in 2011 – equivalent to around 250 double-decker buses. About one-third came from the commercial and industrial sectors.

Photo: Flickr/Sporkist.

Authorities at the time said they would use data from 2011 as the base point. If the city stuck to its goal of reducing food waste by 40 per cent, the amount produced each day should have come down to around 2,160 tonnes by this year. 

That goal, however, looks highly unrealistic. According to the latest data published by the Environment Protection Department, an average of 3,255 tonnes of food waste was discarded daily in 2020. 

Government records on Hong Kong's waste production and recycling go back only to 1995. By going through years of data from the Environmental Protection Department, HKFP found that the city only started recovering food waste, which was regarded as part of municipal solid waste, for recycling in 2011.

The amount of municipal solid waste recovered for recycling dropped by nearly half in less than a decade - from three million tonnes in 2011 to around 1.5 million in 2020. The amount of food waste recovered rose over the years, but remained only a fraction - around three per cent - of all the waste recovered.

O.Park 1, which started operations in 2018, aims to handle around 200 tonnes of organic waste per day. However, local media reported that it only dealt with half that amount last year.

In a report released last year, the government said the drop in recovery was a result of mainland China tightening up its import of recyclables, meaning that the city's waste had to be sent to the landfill instead.

Big waster

According to the Environmental Bureau's 2014 report, two-thirds of food waste came from the domestic sector. To attempt to raise awareness and reduce domestic food waste, authorities launched a number of initiatives.

One of the best known featured the Big Waster mascot, which was introduced together with the Food Wise Hong Kong Campaign in 2013 to encourage the public to reduce food waste at the source.

The government hailed the campaign a success after domestic food waste disposal fell by 17 per cent from 0.37 kilogram per person per day in 2013 to 0.3 kilogram in 2019.

Newer programmes include the installation of smart recycling bins for food waste in housing estates. Heng Fa Chuen was the first large private estate to join the pilot scheme, placing 15 smart bins across its complex to collect food waste every day since 2021. Residents welcomed the move, saying it motivated them to recycle.

A smart recycling bin for food waste installed in Heng Fa Chuen. Photo: Almond Li/HKFP.

"I use it everyday because there is food waste every day... There are a number of them so it is quite convenient," resident Ms. Wong told HKFP.

A smart recycling bin for food waste installed in Heng Fa Chuen. Photo: Almond Li/HKFP.

Mr. Siu, who has lived in Heng Fa Chuen for more than 20 years said the estate had launched its own food waste recycling scheme before, but halted it shortly afterwards because of hygiene and odour problems.

"It's cleaner now because people can wrap the food waste in a plastic bag. We used to just throw the waste into the bin, so it was exposed to the air and was less hygienic," Siu said.

A community group that pushed for the scheme said around 400 to 500 people a day used the smart bins to recycle their food waste. More than 8,000 kilograms of food waste was collected in a two-week period between May and June, HFC Professional Monitoring Group told HKFP. The waste is collected and transported to O.Park daily.

'A good start'

ECPAL founder Tai said he had heard of the smart recycling bin initiative. "I think that is a good start, but the government [is] always doing some trial programme, it does not have a continuous plan. It does not have a roadmap to extend it to the whole Hong Kong."

He said the food waste collection network in Hong Kong must be strengthened as there were only a few bins across the city. His non-profit hoped to fill that gap, but the entrepreneur admitted it took a lot of hard work and a lot of rejection.

Most residential buildings which ECPAL contacted rejected the bins because of potential odour and hygiene problems, even though other waste also smells if not handled properly.

O.Park 1. Photo: GovHK.

An academic said the government needs to do more than just educating the public on waste reduction and separation.

"Education is just the basic. However, we don't have enough collection facilities. We don't have enough treatment facilities," said Johnathan Wong, a biology professor and the director of the Hong Kong Organic Resource Centre.

He said the efficiency of building treatment facilities should match those of waste separation and collection.

O.Park 1. Photo: GovHK.

"But the current treatment facilities are going too slow. It took almost 10 years before we can have these 200 tonnes treatment facility (O.Park). I hope next year or somewhere around next year, we should have the second O.Park coming up - O.Park 2... Using this speed to build our facilities, it would take at least another 10 more years before we can go up to another 500 tonnes [of food waste recycled]."

In its latest blueprint, the government promised to step up efforts to provide "adequate facilities" to handle 50 per cent of the food waste disposed of daily by the mid-2030s and giving more financial support to the recycling industry to develop technology.

When new Chief Executive John Lee took office in July, his administration said little about environmental protection policies. Whether the new promises can be kept remains to be seen.

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Almond Li

Almond Li is a Hong Kong-based journalist who previously worked for Reuters and Happs TV as a freelancer, and as a reporter at Hong Kong International Business Channel, Citizen News and Commercial Radio Hong Kong. She earned her Masters in Journalism at the University of Southern California. She has an interest in LGBT+, mental health and environmental issues.