Recycling in Hong Kong
Recycling is the third of the well-known ‘3 Rs’, following Reduce and Reuse in the hierarchy of solutions to reduce waste. It is not the answer to the world’s plastic pollution problem, but it is an important action to take as it will help minimise the amount of virgin plastic needed to make new items which is important given the harm that the extraction of oil and production of plastic causes. It is also beneficial as fossil fuels are a non-renewable natural resource.
Recycling is the “reprocessing, by means of a manufacturing process, of a used … material into a product, a component incorporated into a product, or a secondary (recycled) raw material; excluding energy recovery and the use of the product as a fuel.”
Challenges with Recycling
When China instituted Operation Green Fence in 2013, and particularly when they followed it with the China National Sword policy in 2018, the challenges of recycling became evident around the world. Half of the world’s plastic recycling had been sent to China, and Hong Kong also relied primarily on China to handle its recycling of not only plastic and other recyclable materials.
Historically in Hong Kong, the bulk of the ‘recycling’ done by companies didn’t have much to do with the collection of recyclables in HK. They imported recyclable material from other countries and then exported it, with little or no processing taking place here in HK. The recyclable material collected in Hong Kong was mainly baled and then exported for handling elsewhere, mostly in China.
Since changes in 2018 which saw China ban the importation of many recyclable materials, local plastic ‘recycling’ has evolved somewhat to include a small amount of local processing into secondary raw materials such as plastic flakes or pellets, but still very little of the waste collected in Hong Kong is processed in this way. Most continues to be exported to other countries as it is generally deemed to be not sorted well enough, not clean enough or not in enough quantity to be feasibly recycled locally.
Operation Green Fence
In February 2013, China’s Operation Green Fence was implemented. China launched greater inspections of incoming loads of scrap material in an effort aimed at curtailing the amount of contaminated recyclables and waste that was being imported. The Green Fence policy was in fact an effort to enforce import regulations passed in 2006 and 2010.
China National Sword
This is China’s latest and strictest regulation on imports of solid wastes as raw materials. China’s National Sword policy, enacted in January 2018, banned the import of most plastics and other materials headed for China’s recycling processors, which had handled nearly half of the world’s recyclable waste for the past quarter century. The policy banned various types of plastic, paper and other solid waste materials, and set strict contamination limits on what they do accept.
Types of Plastic
Plastic is often identified with a plastic resin code number molded on it, indicating the type of plastic that it is. This may help you to determine whether it can be recycled in your location.
Although all plastics are potentially recyclable, there needs to be enough quantity to make it cost effective to process, and there must be a demand for that recycled plastic.
Due to the low price of oil, it can be cheaper to make new products with virgin plastic rather than recycled plastic. Therefore, the demand, especially for many lower value plastics, has dropped.
The Plastic Recycling Industry in Hong Kong
Most of the facilities in Hong Kong are small and rely mainly on manual sorting along conveyer belts. Hong Kong does not have any of the typical material recovery facilities, known as MRFs, which can be found in other developed countries handling mixed recycling. The few higher tech plastic recycling systems in HK handle only plastic, not mixed waste, and some may be able to separate up to three types of plastic at one time.
(The below videos were filmed in Sept, 2016)
Plastics not removed from the sorting conveyor belt will end up in Hong Kong’s landfills.
Bagged plastic won’t be emptied and separated due to health and safety reasons. Plastic must be loose.
Recyclables are often contaminated with hazardous materials, such as diapers!
Making Plastic Pellets Hong Kong (30th March 2018)
This is the ‘noodle to rice’ machine which makes recycled plastic pellets out of clear LDPE plastic film. The clear film is chopped into chunks in the guillotine before it is fed onto the conveyor belt. It enters the the heating chamber where it is melted and pushed out the other end in spaghetti-like noodles. The continuous strings of plastic are fed through a water bath for cooling and setting before they enter the final phase of being chopped into tiny plastic ‘rice-like’ pellets. The collected plastic pellets are then pumped into a large transport sack, ready to sell.
What and Where to Recycle in Hong Kong ?
As per the Hong Kong Waste Reduction website, you can recycle the following in the street bins throughout Hong Kong:
- Paper – newspaper, books and magazines; office paper; corrugate cardboard (carton boxes)
- Plastic – beverage bottles and personal care containers
- Metal – iron/aluminium cans, milk powder cans, cookware, food containers
- Glass – bottles and jars; no light bulbs, cookware, windows, etc.
Private residential buildings, estates, office buildings, shopping malls, etc. also facilitate recycling of paper, metal, plastic and sometimes glass with separation bins managed by their own contracted waste management companies. Check with your building management to find out what they accept for recycling.
Specialised Recycling of Items
We have to move away from the idea of ‘wish recycling’. Some items are only recyclable if they are taken to a special processing facility. If these items are put in the general recyclables collection stream they will not get recycled, no matter how hard you wish for it!
Community Green Stations (CGS)
Eight of the districts across Hong Kong have a CGS where the public can recycle plastics #1, 2, 4 and 5 as well as paper, liquid cartons, metals, electrical appliances, glass bottles, fluorescent lamps and tubes, rechargeable batteries, etc. They also provide education, host swap events for clothing, books and other items, and offer mobile education and recycling collection booths within their communities. Each district will eventually have its own CGS.
Community Recycling Centres
Pop-up Recycling Stations
These citizen-led monthly or bi-weekly collections of plastic, including polystyrene (#6), and liquid cartons were set up individually across Hong Kong in response to what was felt by some people to be an insufficient government-led system of recycling collection. The materials are properly sorted by type when dropped off, and the organisers ensure that they are sent to an appropriate recycler for handling. A main goal of these stations is education, not only on the types of plastic which can be recycled, but most importantly on the need to reduce the use of plastic. Check with your closest pop-up recycling station to find out what they will accept.
A new addition to the recycling capabilities in Hong Kong in 2019 is Mil Mill, a paper processing facility which focuses on multi-layer paper-based containers such as liquid cartons, often referred to as Tetra-Paks, and coffee cups. Due to the numerous layers of material which may be made from paper, plastic and aluminium, it is not possible to process these materials with other paper products.
The facility can process 10 tonnes of material per day. Considering that in 2018, 67 tonnes per day were sent to landfill, this will not be enough to handle all of the liquid cartons used in HK, but it will allow the recovery of the valuable paper used for these items. The processing is not the difficult part but the collection of this material is challenging. For this facility, the material must be clean and the cartons must be prepared in a particular way for collection, fully cut open, washed and dried with the cap and spout removed. Adding to the collection challenges, you cannot simply place these items in any recycling bin. There are designated collection points, ranging from specially designed bins located in public and private areas to daily or monthly collection options. Find the location nearest you on this map of the collection points. You can also send your clean material directly to the facility in Yuen Long.
How to Prepare Your Liquid Cartons
Don’t forget to remove the cap and spout!
Mil Mill offers tours of their facility to schools and groups. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
(Click on the above graphic to download)
Did You Know?
Very little plastic waste collected from the municipal solid waste (MSW) stream is separated for recycling.
In 2018, only 64,200 tonnes of plastic was recovered for recycling out of the 919,000 tonnes collected.
93% of the plastic disposed of went to landfill!
Did You Know?
Due to China’s implementation of the National Sword policy in 2018, PET bottle recovery for recycling dropped from 3,656 tonnes in 2017 to 115 tonnes!
Did You Know?
You can recycle your clean liquid cartons and disposable coffee cups in Hong Kong but they can’t go in the general recycling bins with the paper or plastic.
They must be taken to a Community Green Station or special pop-up recycling station, or sent directly to Mil Mill, the recycling facility!