The future of Hong Kong’s only drinks carton recycler remains uncertain even after the government offered to help it remain in operation, the firm’s co-founder has said.

The paper pulp mill Mil Mill announced on Monday that it faced closure after its landlord, the government-backed Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation (HKSTP), did not renew its lease at the Yuen Long Industrial Estate.

Beverage carton processing machineries in Mil Mill. Photo: Mil Mill, via Facebook.

Speaking on an RTHK radio show on Tuesday morning, Mil Mill’s co-founder Harold Yip said the lease had been altered to facilitate “re-industrialisation” projects such as the development of microelectronics. The recycling facility could be forced to close or relocate by the end of the year.

“Why are we not seen as an industry?” Yip asked. “We are the only company in Hong Kong that can turn drinks cartons into paper pulp, and all the facilities use heavy machinery,” he said. “I do not understand what ‘re-industrialisation’ means each time I hear it.”

When asked about Mil Mill during his weekly press conference Chief Executive John Lee said that it was government policy to support the recycling industry. “We have proactively contacted them and hope to see how we can help.”

According to Lee, the Environmental Protection Department had provided alternative locations for the paper pulp mill to apply to operate on.

“We support environment-friendly industries, but at the same time, land supply is a major concern, therefore we have to strike a balance,” Lee said.

Speaking with HKFP on Tuesday afternoon, however, Yip said the three lots provided by the Environmental Protection Department may not help him continue operations of the recycling plant.

Yip said the three possible lots – on Cheung Chau, Stonecutters Island or in Chai Wan – were either not suitable for Mil Mill or too expensive.

What Yip really wanted for Mil Mill was for the HKSTP to offer a three-year grace period that would allow drinks carton recycling in Hong Kong to continue uninterrupted until it could move to a new paper pulp plant at Tuen Mun’s EcoPark, which is scheduled to start operations in 2025.

The HKSTP had not responded to his request regarding the grace period, Yip said.

Nevertheless, Yip said Mil Mill was determined to continue to provide carton recycling services in Hong Kong. “The fight must go on,” Yip told HKFP.

“Nobody in the entire world walks alongside us, but we ultimately created our own path,” Yip said, “and our operation has proven itself to be sustainable.”

Former secretary for the environment Wong Kam-sing attended the opening ceremony of Mil Mill in 2019. File photo: 黃錦星 Wong Kam Sing, via Facebook.

While some local media reports suggested that Singapore had invited Mil Mill to move operations there instead, Yip clarified with HKFP that the goal was to help deal with local waste issues in both Hong Kong and the Southeast Asian city-state.

‘Absolutely’ will bring negative impacts

Tommy Yu, the Environmental Affairs Manager of Green Power, told HKFP that the possible closure of Mil Mill would “absolutely” have a negative impact on the city’s environmental industries.

He said the government had put into a lot of effort into expanding recycling collection points in Hong Kong. “[But] no matter how good your recycling network is, if there is no factory to process it, your efforts will be meaningless,” Yu said.

Additionally, he estimated that it could take years for people to get into the habit of cleaning and recycling drinks cartons again if the city lost its only carton recycling facility and had to wait for the the EcoPark plant to open in 2025.

Yu also said the new plant could not completely replace Mil Mill as it would have to handle other forms of paper waste, as well. “Its capacity is far lower than the amount of paper waste produced in Hong Kong anyways,” he added.

The HKSTP’s refusal to renew Mil Mill’s lease also sent a “completely different” message to the recycling industry when compared with the government’s narrative of promoting environmentally friendly industries, Yu said.

Confidence concerns

Speaking on RTHK, Yip said there were currently over 600 drinks carton collection points across the city and he estimated that nearly 1 million residents were in the habit of cleaning and recycling beverage cartons.

“It is hard to pick it back up after casting it aside,” he said. “It is really difficult to re-establish such a habit.”

Joining Yip on RTHK, Hahn Chu, the director of environmental affairs at environmental non-profit The Green Earth, estimated that 2 billion beverage cartons would be sent to local landfills annually if Mil Mill were to go out of business.

Chu said he was worried that it would have a negative impact on the confidence of the public and the recycling industry in the government’s determination to promote eco-friendly industries.

“For others who have not entered the [recycling industry], is there enough forward-planning in the government’s land policies to bolster confidence in them?” Chu asked.

He also said relevant government departments should have foreseen the situation and offered solutions in advance instead of offering help once Mil Mill faced closure.

Correction 10:15 a.m.: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that one of government’s suggested alternative locations is in Tai Wan, when in fact it is in Chai Wan. We regret the error.

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Peter Lee

Peter Lee is a reporter for HKFP. He was previously a freelance journalist at Initium, covering political and court news. He holds a Global Communication bachelor degree from CUHK.