In nature “one organism’s waste is another’s feast”. Nature works on a cradle to cradle system. The waste created by every organism and even its dead body exists to serve some purpose to maintain the balance of this phenomenon called life. Nature adapts, evolves and reuses so that nothing is in excess and nothing is wasted. Why do we as humans waste so much through our lifestyles?
“Zero Waste: The conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of products, packaging, and materials without burning and with no discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment or human health.”
What is happening with our waste in Hong Kong?
Let’s look below to first see how much waste we produce as a city and where it is coming from.
Food, Paper & Plastic
Over three quarters of the waste that is thrown in landfills every day falls into the 3 broad categories of food, plastic and paper.
This is where we need to prioritise our personal waste reduction actions. We also need to support restaurants/cafes and businesses that are taking steps to reduce their wasted food and packaging.
Despite abundance in some cities and countries, there is much inequality with food and resources around the world. Globally, 462 million people are underweight and do not have enough access to food.
In Hong Kong, domestic food waste amounting to 0.46 kg/person is thrown out each day. It is time to revisit our food waste habits!
Zero Waste Strategies Around the World
When governments, corporations and citizens come together with a collective goal, they can change the entire country. And if all cities and countries come together to further that goal, they can change the entire world.
In 2017, the Swedish government reformed the tax system so that people could get cheaper repairs on used items. Swedish clothing giant H&M operates a recycling scheme where customers get a discount upon handing in old clothes*. Sweden has long had a can and bottle deposit system that gives people money back when they recycle – since 1984 for aluminium cans and since 1994 for plastic bottles.
*How does H&M’s donated clothes get recycled?
New York - USA
As part of the larger OneNYC vision to become “the most resilient, equitable, and sustainable city in the world,” the Big Apple set a goal in 2015 to achieve zero waste by 2030. One of the strategies, an expanded organic waste curbside collection program, now serves more than three million residents and is the largest program of its kind in the United States.
The Italian town of Capannori was the first in Europe to sign up to the Zero Waste strategy in 2007, committing to send zero waste to landfill by 2020. By 2010, 82% of municipal waste was being segregated at source, leaving just 18% of residual waste to go to landfill.
In Metro Vancouver, the directors unanimously voted to adopt a zero-waste approach in 2006. In 2018, Zero Waste 2040 was approved. Strategies to achieve this include reducing single-use items, composting organic waste, and prioritising a “circular economy” where innovative design, reuse, repair, and remanufacturing of products prevent unnecessary waste.
This Flemish region of Belgium has been steadily working towards zero-waste since approving their first Waste Decree in the 1980s. Policies have transformed over time from an initial focus on disposal to recycling, source separation and prevention. Today, nearly 75% of residential waste (the highest percentage in Europe) is diverted from landfill.
Many countries around the world (including the US, UK and Australia to name a few) have traditionally ‘managed’ their waste plastic packaging by shipping it to other countries, such as China, Hong Kong and Indonesia, to handle.
This waste was misleadingly recorded as ‘recycled’ by the countries shipping the waste, despite the fact that they had little idea what actually happened to the ‘recyclable’ material once it reached its destination. Recently, there have been legislative changes to stop this unethical practice and force countries to deal with the waste they create.
How can we start moving towards a Zero Waste lifestyle?
It may seem like a very daunting task, but even small steps can make a huge difference. A simple approach can help guide us: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repair, Recycle, and Compost.
When we use resources to make products which we use and then throw away, we are creating a linear economy: Take-Make-Waste.
A circular economy aims to keep products, equipment and infrastructure in use for longer, thus improving the productivity of these resources. Ideally, the circular economy should emulate nature where all ‘waste’ becomes ‘food’ for another process, hence extending the life of materials and products, where possible, over multiple ‘use cycles’. Materials are consistently reused rather than discharged as waste.
Let’s further consider the Zero Waste Hierarchy to guide us towards a more sustainable lifestyle.
Zero Waste Hierarchy
Rethink/Redesign: Waste and pollution are consequences of decisions made at the design stage, where around 80% of environmental impacts are determined. When we stop buying products that create a lot of waste, we influence the corporations to stop producing products that create a lot of waste. We encourage businesses to Redesign and Rethink their products.
Reduce: We need to reduce our wasteful consumption habits. A good place to begin is by considering our ‘needs’ over our ‘wants’. Another easy contribution we can make is to purchase locally made products. By ‘going local’, we bypass the carbon costs of transport, we may avoid packaging used to preserve the life of products over long distances and we also support our local economy.
Reuse: One effective way towards a Zero Waste lifestyle is by maximising the reuse of materials and products. Let’s maintain, repair or refurbish to retain value, usefulness and function. Why not remanufacture with disassembled parts, dismantling and keeping ‘spare’ parts for repairs? Consider reusable items instead of disposable ones.
Recycle/Compost: Recycle and use materials for as high a purpose as possible. Develop uses for collected materials wherever possible. Use food waste for compost. Let the rot become the food for our plants.
Material recovery: If we are not careful when segregating our discarded products, we make it difficult for recycling companies to recover the materials that can be further processed. A lot of goods that could have otherwise gone into the recycling system end up in landfills because their recovery is no longer possible. We can contribute towards this material recovery by putting clean waste into the right bin.
Residuals management: This is where corporations need to take responsibility for their waste by examining materials that are unable to be reused or recycled and plan them out of future designs to prevent further waste. Packaging should not be planned to be managed through burning in an incinerator or waste to energy facility.
Unacceptable: Packaging should not be continued if the end result can only be managed through burning in an incinerator or waste-to- energy facility. We need to use our voices and choices to send out a collective signal that we won’t support policies and systems that rely on waste generation. We will not accept production and consumption behaviors and processes that add to the piles of discards. We will not accept toxic residuals to destroy our environment or our lifestyles. Let us discourage the linear economy and encourage the circular one.
For more information and indepth reading on the above go to Zero Waste International Alliance
Zero Waste Inspiration Hong Kong
Do you need some inspiration for local Zero Waste actions? Be inspired by some of our local Zero Wasters!
Formerly in HK but now in KL, Claire has been practising Zero Waste since 2012. She spoke about her lifestyle and choices at the PFS Youth Conference in 2013. She put her ideals into action, setting up a package-free shop in KL.
Hannah committed to a year of Zero Waste to address the growing global issue in the city known for its gratuitous packaging, and kept going. “I feel like convenience is the major thing here in Hong Kong,”
In 2018, Green52 shared an action every week to inspire people with practical ideas and solutions to move towards Zero Waste. Follow Green52 on Instagram below as they continue to share tips and ideas.
Zero Waste Myths
It’s too difficult
It may take some getting used to, but all you need to get started are a few reusable items for on-the-go purchases. There are many collapsable containers to make your daily life less cumbersome. Keep reusable cutlery and a container at work for your take-away meals.
Find shops and markets nearby where you can purchase items with no or less packaging. Think street markets for fruit, vegetables and some dry goods, and ask your butcher to put meat or fish into your own container.
Zero Waste Myths
If you aren’t creating zero waste you are failing!
Taking on Zero Waste practices is a journey rather than a destination. There is an often repeated saying ‘We need a million people doing zero waste imperfectly rather that one person doing it perfectly’.
The goal is to be very aware of your consumption and waste practices and continually try to reduce these.
Zero Waste Myths
Zero Waste is expensive
There may be initial costs to buy some reusable containers to help you ditch disposables, but it doesn’t have to be expensive. Reuse jars and containers for storing food. Extend the life of a product you have instead of replacing it – even if it is made from plastic.
The zero waste lifestyle is focused on reducing the purchase of new products which saves you money. When you do buy something, buy good quality. It may cost more initially, but in the long run it will save you money.
Buy reusable, durable, repairable, secondhand or borrow!