Trash Talk: Hong Kongers Produce the Most Garbage in the World

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When you first get to Hong Kong, there are a few clues that this city might have a trash problem on its hands — like the fact that people seem to live off takeaway food, which all comes in plastic containers that are then wrapped in a paper bag, wrapped in a plastic bag. Or how at global chains like Pret A Manger, the nice people behind the counter are always reminding you not to forget your plastic cutlery on your way out the door, or how free newspapers and flyers are being thrust into your hand at every bus stop, subway exit and street corner.

Eventually, the city’s manic rate of consumption starts to seem normal. Problem is, it’s not. As the lead story of the English-language daily South China Morning Post announced today, Hong Kong generates more trash per capita than any other place in the world. It’s kind of a remarkable accomplishment when you think about how small this city is compared to say, Norway, the runner up on the OECD study of 30 economies’ waste that placed Asia’s International City at the top.

Seven million Hong Kongers generated a total of 6.45 million tons of waste in 2009, which, on a per capita basis, breaks down to 2000 pounds (921 kg) of municipal solid waste per person. (Excluding construction and hazardous waste.) There’s only one thing to say about that. Aiyahhhh.

How do we beat other regional, packaging-happy places like Japan (900 pounds per capita) and South Korea (837 pounds) by more than double? As SCMP reporter Cheung Chi-fai writes, roughly half the waste that goes into the SAR’s landfills  comes from households, and a little less than half of that sum is food waste. The city, widely known for its love affair with food,  has been struggling for years over what to do with its ever-increasing mounds of leftovers. Some restaurants have gone so far in the past as to fine customers who don’t finish what’s on their plate; others use on-site recyclers to treat organic waste.

Food waste is hardly unique to Hong Kong. In 2009, the U.N. estimated that over half the food produced across the world today is lost in our inefficient food chain from production to consumption, leaving so many bellies empty and so many plates too full.

But because of Hong Kong’s small size and big population, there’s nowhere to put it. About half the city’s waste is recycled. The other half goes exclusively to three main landfills — the only form of disposal after incineration halted 13 years ago — that occupy over 650 acres of precious space here. Those landfills are filling up fast, but the government has yet to settle on where to build new ones or where to put the two incinerators it proposes to install to stem the garbage tide.

But incineration, while widely used in many crowded, land-poor parts of the world, is a hard sell in a city that is already beleaguered by bad air. Though proponents of incineration say that new technologies have made it cleaner, that it is a source of energy, and that, perhaps more to the point, there is no other choice, residents in neighborhoods that have been proposed as sites for burning trash are none too pleased. (Read more about the incinerator versus landfill debate.)

My bet is that we’ll find out what’s next once the landfills are full. Until then, Hong Kong would do well to remember its three Rs, and make a collective promise that even though we all embrace the reduce-reuse-recycle ethos, we’ll never let anything like I Am Not A Plastic Bag happen to us ever, ever again.