Green groups have called on the government’s only wood processing plant to step up recycling operations and improve transparency after only 15 per cent of tree waste collected in the wake of Super Typhoon Saola was deemed suitable for recycling.

Typhoon Saola shek mun
Shek Mun in the aftermath of Super Typhoon Saola on Saturday, September 2, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Saola triggered the Hong Kong Observatory to issue its highest storm signal on September 1 for the first time since Super Typhoon Mangkhut hit Hong Kong in September 2018.

Responding to enquiries from HKFP, a spokesperson for the Development Bureau said the government had received 3,700 reports of fallen or broken trees after Saola. The resulting debris was sent to temporary tree waste collection areas in the Kai Tak Development Area, South East New Territories Landfill, West New Territories Landfill, and North East New Territories Landfill, and garden waste recycling plant Y Park, the bureau said.

People walk past damaged trees People in raincoats in Tseung Kwan O as Super Typhoon Saola approaches Hong Kong on September 1, 2023. Photo: Kyle La/HKFP.
People walk past damaged trees in Tseung Kwan O as Super Typhoon Saola approaches Hong Kong on September 1, 2023. Photo: Kyle La/HKFP.

According to the Environmental Protection Department, the amount of tree waste generated was about 1,800 tonnes, most of which was twigs, small branches, and leaves.

The department estimated that about 270 tonnes of the tree waste – 15 per cent – could be recycled and would be delivered to Y Park for processing.

“Y Park is equipped with different processing equipment, such as wood crushers, wood cutting machines, etc., which can convert suitable fallen trees into different useful materials,” the Environmental Protection Department said in an emailed response to HKFP.

The remaining 1,530 tonnes would be sent to the city’s landfills, a department spokesperson confirmed by phone on Wednesday, after repeated enquiries on the waste deemed unsuitable for recycling would be handled.

Typhoon Saola shek mun
Shek Mun in the aftermath of Super Typhoon Saola on Saturday, September 2, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Y Park was set up in June 2021 to “rachet up the scale of yard waste recycling and diversify the types of recyclable products,” according to it’s website. The government facility “can transform suitable yard waste into various useful materials such as wood boards, wood beams, wood chips and sawdust.”

After Mangkhut in 2018, green groups and scholars criticised the government for disposing of 20,480 tonnes of tree waste in the West New Territories Landfill without conducting any resource classification or seeing if it could have been recycled.

Prepared but limited

In a reply to HKFP, green group Friends of the Earth said that while the government was “more prepared” than it had been when Mangkhut hit Hong Kong, recycling efforts still had a long way to go.

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Citing government figures over the past 10 years, the group said less than 3 per cent of the city’s yard waste had been recycled – some 2,000 tonnes out of 60,000 to 70,000 tonnes per year.

Caroline Law, board governor at Friends of the Earth, said Y Park had limited functionality, as it only accepted logs. Other garden waste, such as grass, leaves, and branches, must be sent to landfills for disposal, Law said, adding that most yard waste collected during daily maintenance of green spaces also came in the form of leaves and branches.

“There’s no incentive for them to change that,” Law told HKFP in Cantonese.

Typhoon Saola shek mun
Shek Mun in the aftermath of Super Typhoon Saola on Saturday, September 2, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Environmental NGO The Green Earth suggested the government make use of organic resources recovery centre O Park1, which the green group said was not operating at full capacity. Citing government data, it said the facility could process 200 tonnes of material daily, but was handling an average of 135 tonnes per day, as of this June.

Law added that large quantities of organic matter would be needed to plant trees and build green infrastructure in the near future as the city moved towards greener development.

“We should make good use of government land for temporary storage of wood chips and yard waste, which can be left to decompose, then used for new town development or other green infrastructure projects,” Law said.

Heng Fa Chuen Mangkhut aftermath
Dozens of trees were felled in Heng Fa Chuen during Super Typhoon Mangkhut in September 2018. Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

In 2017, Hong Kong vowed to cut carbon emissions by 26 to 36 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030, and in 2020, then-leader Carrie Lam announced plans to become carbon-neutral by 2050.

Top officials have vowed that mega-development projects under the Northern Metropolis initiative and artificial islands off Lantau will meet sustainability targets. A recent study found that parts of the Northern Metropolis could reach temperatures considered dangerous to human survival by the end of the century.

Transparency lacking

Friends of the Earth called on authorities to “openly and honestly” release detailed figures on Y Park’s operations: “Citizens should have the right to know how much waste was actually screened and sent to Y Park for disposal.”

Law, who holds a PhD in urban greening from the University of Hong Kong, said Y Park, as the only garden waste recycling facility in the city, should “improve transparency and make public the amount of yard waste processed and its output of useful materials… every month.”

Typhoon Saola Big Wave Bay,
Big Wave Bay, Hong Kong Island, in the aftermath of Super Typhoon Saola on Saturday, September 2, 2023. Photo: Mercedes Hutton/HKFP.

Y Park’s website said its daily handling capacity, which began at 30 tonnes in its first year of operation, would gradually increase to 60 tonnes. But it has not regularly released figures on how much waste it handles.

Law also said that people should know whether the facility was indeed successful at achieving a circular economy – a system that produces little to no waste. If that was not the case, it should evaluate the reasons for the lack of demand, she added.

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James Lee is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press with an interest in culture and social issues. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English and a minor in Journalism from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where he witnessed the institution’s transformation over the course of the 2019 extradition bill protests and after the passing of the Beijing-imposed security law.

Since joining HKFP in 2023, he has covered local politics, the city’s housing crisis, as well as landmark court cases including the 47 democrats national security trial. He was previously a reporter at The Standard where he interviewed pro-establishment heavyweights and extensively covered the Covid-19 pandemic and Hong Kong’s political overhauls under the national security law.