Hong Kong's under-developed recycling industry: even university can not get waste disposed satisfactorily

Davis Bookhart, UST sustainability expert and associate professor

Ninety per cent of waste generated by the University of Science and Technology ends up in landfills despite its recycling efforts, Davis Bookhart said. Davis is head of the UST’s Sustainability Unit and an associate professor. Of the 10 per cent sent off for recycling some still goes to landfills because contractors do not abide by their contracts. “The Government is subsidising bad behaviour.”

SAI KUNG BUZZ commented to Davis that if the UST, arguably the most sophisticated institution in the district, has such challenges with recycling there is little hope for the wider community.

Davis cited food waste, about 25 per cent of the trash produced at the university daily. The contract with the company that takes food waste away states in bold face that all of it must become fish food. But the UST has discovered the contractor uses just the highest protein stuff for fish food and dumps the rest in landfills. “We get them in and they say they are doing their best.” If there was plenty of competition, the university could fire the contractor and retain another one, but there isn’t, he said.

The recycling industry in Hong Kong is under-developed. Davis listed the main other types of rubbish produced at the UST: Gardening waste, about 15%; no companies take it so it ends up in landfills. Construction waste, about 20%; off to landfills it goes because no contractors want it. Animal bedding, about 10%; it goes to a landfill. Packaging, about 20%; “until the recycling industry changes  very little will be satisfactorily recycled.”

“The recycling industry is facing an uphill battle because  trash is so heavily subsidised by the government,” Davis said. “The underperformance by the industry is bad for the environment and obvious to everyone. People see no reason to recycle and don’t bother.”

The government does edge forward ever so slowly. Charging the public for bags that are the only ones allowed to go to landfills has been mooted. The UST’s sustainability expert supported this, because it would change behaviour.  Letting the private sector take over waste collection entirely by public tender is another option. Fair market prices for waste disposal would allow much more profitability for recycling companies leading them to invest in growth. Firms that do not perform to contract specification should be penalised. A lot can be done by requiring producers of waste to be more responsible. For example, glass bottle makers may soon be forced to take back their products. Davis said, “Alba is a success story.” Few people realise that when they buy a laptop or i-pad a small fee goes to Alba to pay for recycling. “All sorts of things can potentially be done with this sort of approach.”

Despite the uphill struggle, Davis said the university aims to cut its waste going to landfills in half by 2020.

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