Addicted to Trash

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With stunning speed, Hong Kong has transitioned from a manufacturing hub into a post-industrial service-based economy. Few things are now made here, most are imported from around the globe or the bustling behemoth an hour away. This consumer based economy produces massive amounts of trash that remains out-of-sight and out-of-mind unless you happen to stumble across  the shrunken grandmas collecting cardboard and beer cans at midnight.

The drive to sell luxury goods and live the “good life” has blinded Hong Kong to the environmental impact of endless consumption. Hong Kongers produce 6.5 million tonnes of trash every year, more per-capita than any other developed society. 65% of it is dumped into three landfills. This is cheap, commands minimal effort or attention from the public, and requires little infrastructure investment. However, land doesn’t come cheap on the fragrant harbor, and it’s difficult to build on top of or near landfills, which contaminate soil and groundwater, and release greenhouse gases (not to mention a terrible stench). The landfills are near full capacity, and unsurprisingly the public is lukewarm about expanding or creating new ones. New solutions are needed, but what are some of the options?

Incineration

A recent government proposal is to build a trash incinerator on reclaimed land south of Lantau. Incineration involves burning trash at high temperatures and in some cases can be used to generate electricity.

Advantages: It effectively manages the volume of trash, reducing it by 90%, while potentially also generating electricity that Hong Kong could use. It is the simplest to implement, requiring no change of behaviour on the part of consumers or business.

Disadvantages: Regardless of the filtration system used, burning plastics, which generates the most heat and therefore energy, still releases cancer-causing dioxins. Burning everything else releases carbon dioxide and heavy metals into the atmosphere. Incinerators are expensive to build, and require a steady, sizable stream of waste to maintain oven temperatures for effectiveness. The need for consistent trash input doesn’t leave much room for recycling and composting programs unless quotas are implemented. The remaining ash from incineration still needs to be dumped into landfills.

Composting

Organic matter, such as landscape or kitchen waste, is a problem when dumped into landfills. In the anaerobic environment of a landfill, it produces a terrible smell and methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) composting solves this by composting or breaking it down aerobically. It can then be used in gardens, parks or farms.

Advantages: It eliminates the release of methane and dramatically reduces the noxious smell. Since 40% of all landfill waste consists of food waste, it can have a sizeable impact. Composting reincorporates valuable organic material into the soil. It is the purest form of recycling, mimicking nature’s process. Compost recycles nutrients that can boost agricultural production and reduce the need for chemical fertilisers.

Disadvantages: Separating food waste from other household or business waste and collecting it is challenging. The public needs to be educated, and infrastructure and services dedicated to channeling organic waste to composting facilities needs to be provided. High quality compost is difficult to achieve and depends on the level of separation.

Recycling

Plastic, metal, glass and paper can be reprocessed and used to create new products. Recycling is the greenest option for non-organic waste, but it requires commitment from business, the public and government.

Advantages: Recycling reduces air, soil and water pollution while at the same time creating green jobs. It reduces the need to mine and extract raw materials from the earth. Electronics contain valuable precious metals that can extracted and resold. It can also positively influence consumer habits and business practices by creating an awareness of the waste problem and instilling a sense of accountability.

Disadvantages: It is costly and requires a change in behaviour. To be economically viable, households and businesses must sort materials themselves. Reprocessing some materials can be complex and not particularly cost-effective. The city would need to invest in infrastructure, such as trucks, bins, processing facilities, as well as educating the public on what can and cannot be recycled.

Numerous cities and countries among them Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Germany, have implemented highly successful recycling and composting schemes that have dramatically reduced waste. Hong Kong bureaucrats however favour incineration and expanding landfills for their simplicity and business as usual approach. Businesses, which have a disproportionately large influence on policy-making in Hong Kong, are opposed to recycling and composting due to the additional costs and responsibilities it would place on them. Surveys however show that the majority of the public is in favour of it. 

Japan’s experience has shown that while the environmentally friendlier process of sorting and recycling may be more expensive than dumping, it is comparable in cost to incineration. Taiwan’s experience has shown that recycling can create a viable new green industry capable of generating revenues US 2.2 billion annually. Germany, by recycling 62% of its waste, is reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 18 million tonnes

Hong Kongers need to be more aware and proactive in their individual responsibility for a greener waste system to work. The most effective method of reducing waste is to reduce consumption. Excessive consumption is one of the primary causes of our waste problem. Think twice before you buy. And not all trash goes into the nearest bin. While limited, there are some recycling bins around if you look. Without individual effort Hong Kong will not be readying itself for the sustainable future, but instead stuck choking on its own trash.

By Kristian Johnson. A graduate of Johns Hopkins University, Kristian is preparing for a career in agriculture and forestry. He is currently undertaking an internship at Wildroots Organic Farm. His goal is to help conserve forests through sustainable farming practices.  

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Green Common

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Green Monday is a social enterprise that promotes vegetarian diets by cooperating with restaurants, schools, hospitals and other enterprises. Vegetarian diets have been widely recognised to provide both health and environmental benefits. “Green Monday” is an ingenious way to get non-vegetarians to start thinking about eating a vegetarian meal once a week. It publishes meat-free menus and recipes, hosts vegetarian cooking classes and provides educational talks on diets and nutrition. Recently, they expanded their business to retail, opening a vegetarian supermarket in Wanchai called Green Common. I dropped by one afternoon to check it out.

The decor is minimalist and cool. Organic vegetables are prominently displayed near the entrance. Some of the produce is locally sourced. Shelves inside are full of vegetarian products - gone are the days of vegetarian food being bland and uninteresting. The wide array of ingredients and seasonings from all over the world lets you experience vegetarianism without sacrificing flavour, nutrition or variety.

It also caters to the many office workers nearby by selling vegetarian sushi and cold noodle lunch boxes. Unfortunately, since I stopped eating take-away food for a number of years (because I don’t want to create unnecessary plastic waste), I was unable to try any of the yummy looking vegetarian meals. In addition to vegetarian food, there are healthy drinks. In the display fridge, are fresh fruit juices in plastic bottles ($28 for 250ml) and coconut water in glass bottles (not sure why coconut juice needs to be bottled when it comes naturally in a perfectly good container).

This brings back memories to when I used to work in this neighbourhood. At that time, there were many fresh fruit juice stands on this section of Queen’s Road East. After lunch, I would buy a freshly squeezed fruit juice from one of these stands ($6 per cup). Time flies and a decade has since passed. With Urban Renewal projects, all the fruit juice stands were eliminated to be replaced by vendors that could afford higher rents.

However, you don’t have to buy a drink at Green Common – they offer filtered Water for Free if you bring your own bottle. It used to be very difficult to refill your water bottle on this part of Queen’s Road East. You actually needed to go up to the 9th floor of the Social Welfare department headquarters or the 23rd floor of the senior citizen centre to find a water dispenser. The irony is that while the Social Welfare department understands the public’s need for free drinking water, the Environmental Protection Department’s Resource Centre located on Queen’s Road East (opposite of Green Common) doesn’t realise that they can reduce plastic waste simply by installing a water dispenser. Fortunately, Green Common is bearing its social responsibility by offering filtered water for free to the public (no purchase required). We really hope that there are more enterprises and organisations that will do the same.

If you spot new water fountain or dispenser which are not already shown in our app Water for Free, please kindly notify us via email waterforfreehk@gmail.com。

GM Foods Part 2: A Tool We Can’t Turn Away From?

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Spraying Roundup herbicide on Roundup Ready crops to kill weeds

In Part 1, the potential of GMOs to fundamentally change the way we grow food was explored. Of course it isn’t all upside and there is risk when transitioning technology from the lab to the field. But as GM technology is just a plant breeding tool, it’s more pressing to look at the context in which it’s being used and to what end. As of now it has been reduced to a bandaid for maintaining an unsustainable system of industrial farming. Because of this, claims that GM crops can benefit humans (by improving the nutritional content) and the environment (by reducing chemical use on farms) have not been realized.

GM crops are by current metrics safe to humans and the environment. They are without a doubt less harmful than pesticides sprayed on open fields that contaminate water supplies and nearby forests. Regardless, there are reasons to be careful, changing the complex dynamics of ecosystems will have consequences. Crops engineered to kill insects could disrupt natural ecosystems. Another concern is the unlikely possibility that the engineered genes may be passed on to other species via cross-pollination. This could spread herbicide resistance on to weeds or unintentionally kill beneficial insects.

The biggest issue is what GM technology is being used in service of – propping up our current system of industrial agriculture. Industrial agriculture involves growing monocultures or miles and miles of a single crop. While maximizing efficiency, it sacrifices the resiliency of a farm in the face of pest and plant diseases by completely destroying the ecology for the purpose of growing one crop. With only a single crop, pest and diseases can spread like wildfire causing great damage. Hence, these fields require extremely potent chemical pesticides to protect them. Continue reading

GM Foods Part 1: A Tool We Can’t Turn Away From?

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Part 1 explains the history and benefits of GMOs. Part 2 will examine the risks and issues. 

Modern agriculture’s practice of growing monoculture crops with pesticides and synthetic fertilizers makes it one of the most environmentally destructive human activities. Almost nothing compares to the catastrophic levels of deforestation, toxification of water resources, and soil exhaustion that results directly from conventional chemical farming. But we need low-cost food to feed the world and therefore we need modern agriculture. Genetically engineering staple crops, to reduce pest infestation and boost their nutritional content, may be able to reduce the impact of modern agriculture, increase yields for a hungry planet, and lower rates of nutrient deficiency in the developing world.

The portrayal of DNA in popular culture unhelpfully overemphasizes its influence. DNA is not a rigid blueprint dictating our fate, but rather a library stretching beyond view, crammed with manuals describing in detail how our body works. Depending on environmental conditions, some manuals are pulled from the shelf and read while others remain untouched. Each cell carries this library within its nucleus. The function of DNA is to provide these manuals, written in a code, for directing protein creation. Proteins are multipurpose workers that do the most important tasks in the cell. Scientists can cut DNA strands and insert new, lab-made code that alters which proteins are created, thereby altering the functioning of the cell itself. Genetic engineering stripped down is simply that, cutting and pasting bits of genetic code in an effort to alter the functioning of the cell. The most difficult part is deducing if the code leads to a protein that produces the desired effect, and if so, how will it affect other cell processes. Continue reading

Soil Matters!

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In Hong Kong, it’s easy to forgive the impression that we have transitioned to a post-soil society, where with enough concrete and wifi all of our needs can be met. We aren’t there yet and never will be, as soil is an irresistibly efficient way of providing nutrients for food crops to grow. It is the most valuable asset of a farm. Before we get the chance to finally appreciate soil, it may soon disappear. Agronomists predict that within 60 years global soil systems will be irreparably degraded.

Soil is a simple word that describes a complex ecosystem consisting of five essential components. Much of soil is a combination of minerals essential for plant health. Organic matter is made up of plant and animal remains that have been broken down by microorganisms, such as fungi and bacteria. Microorganisms are nature’s diligent nutrient recyclers. Soil needs to be loose to allow gases (oxygen, carbon dioxide) that are essential to the life processes of microorganisms and roots to circulate. Finally, water dissolves and transports nutrients to plant roots. Ideally, all five components are present in relative abundance. Soil composition and quality can vary widely, which is why organic farmers add compost and organic fertilisers to soil.

It may be tempting to grow crops without soil by using water-based hydroponic systems. These systems however have significant drawbacks. First, they can only provide for a fraction of our food needs. They are unable to grow large quantities grain such as rice, wheat, soya and corn that account for 60% of our diet (much of this is fed to the animals we eat). Second, they are capital and energy intensive, making them uneconomical except in circumstances where there is an abundance of both and a shortage of arable land (such as the Middle East). Continue reading

Farming in the Summer

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Amaranth or Yin Choi

It’s easy to condemn the use of synthetic fungicides, insecticides and herbicides by conventional farmers. They, however, are at the mercy of conditions over which they have little to no control. These unsafe toxic compounds provide effective solutions for plant diseases, insect attacks, and weed infestations. Conventional farmers tend to overuse these cheap chemical tools, rather than risk suffering a poor harvest.

An organic farmer, without these potent tools, must instead rely on a deep understanding of the land and the lifecycles of common pests, as well as the characteristics of various plant species. Before deciding what to grow, every farmer must take into account the growing conditions of the upcoming season. Here are some of the challenges of growing in the Hong Kong summer.

Heavy rains (Avg. May to Sept. is 379 mm per month)

Too much water will cause rooting (carrots, radish) and fruiting (tomato) vegetables to crack and also lose much of their flavor. The high clay content prevalent in Hong Kong soils often makes drainage difficult, thereby causing the roots of many plants to die off.

Punishing humidity (Avg. May to Sept. is 81%)

High humidity makes it difficult for many plants to transpire thereby significantly reducing the growth rate of temperate climate species, such as lettuce or spinach. Coupled with warm temperatures, it increases the chances of fungal diseases especially for plants such as zucchini.

High temperatures (Avg. May to Sept. is 28 C)

Plants ill-suited to high temperatures, such as lettuce, wilt or become bitter in summer. Most temperate climate herbs, such as mint or lemon balm, become dormant.

High temperatures also result in prolific weed growth. Competing for sunlight and nutrients, weeds are one of the biggest threats to yield. The Japanese Knotweed is a pernicious invasive species common in Hong Kong. It thrives in warm weather, and has a deep, dense network of rhizomes that spread both vertically (2m deep) and horizontally effectively choking any competition. Removal is nearly impossible as small rhizome fragments can sprout new growth even after 3 years. On organic farms, countless hours are spent manually removing weeds.

Summer temperatures mean there are significantly more harmful insects such as melon flies, flea beetles, and aphids. As consumers, we can select vegetables that grow well during the season, thereby helping conventional farmers reduce their reliance on chemical pesticides. This also ensures we ingest fewer harmful toxic chemicals into our bodies. Here are some of the highly nutritious vegetables that grow well during Hong Kong summers:

  • Cucumber
  • Eggplant
  • Yardlong beans
  • Amaranth
  • Ceylon spinach
  • Morning glory
  • Sweet potato leaf
  • Sweet corn
  • Okra

By Kristian Johnson. A recent graduate of Johns Hopkins University, Kristian is preparing for a career in agriculture and forestry. He is currently undertaking an internship at Wildroots Organic Farm. His goal is to help conserve forests through sustainable farming practices.  

Hydroponics and Property Development

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July 2014. A Hydroponic facility under construction near Hok Tau. Turning green into desert.  

Hydroponic systems are touted by their promoters for safety and high yield. They claim hydroponically grown produce is safe from pollution because the vegetables are entirely detached from the ground. They also claim to be free of pesticides because hydroponic systems are usually housed in enclosed structures that keep pests out. According to it’s proponents, the high yield makes it suitable for a space-deprived Hong Kong.

Agriculture is an industry that exists within our economic system. As such, the laws of economics must apply to it. The law of comparative advantage, familiar to any first year economics student, states that we should specialise in areas where we have an advantage and trade with others for goods in areas where we do not. Both parties to the trade will end up better off.

Large-scale hydroponic systems were developed by the US military in the 1950’s to supply fresh vegetables to soldiers stationed on remote islands. The remoteness of the islands made the transport of fresh food costly and difficult. The barren soil made it unsuitable for growing on the land. Hydroponic facilities are factories that can produce “safe” vegetables anywhere, irregardless of the surrounding environment.

If hydroponic factories are completely safe because they are detached from the land then it doesn’t matter where they are located. The only requirements are land, labor and sources of water and electricity. Land, labor and water are significantly cheaper one hour away, in Shenzhen. If land and labor in Shenzhen are 1/3 to 1/4 the cost of that in Hong Kong, then a hydroponic facility in Hong Kong would be at a huge comparative disadvantage. The same “safe” vegetables could be produced in Shenzhen at a fraction of the cost. (It is for this reason, the law of comparative advantage, that all clothing factories have long since moved from Hong Kong to China.)

Since any first year economics student could arrive at this conclusion, might there be another reason why savvy businessmen (the owner of the facility in the photo above is the former CEO of Esprit, whose clothing factories are located in China) and highly educated bureaucrats are furiously promoting hydroponics? Continue reading

Electronic Waste Recycling

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Editor’s Note:

British Columbia (BC) is a top destination for Hong Kong and mainland Chinese tourists and emigrants. Like Hong Kong, it has uniquely beautiful landscapes with both ocean and mountain views. What makes it different from Hong Kong though, is the willingness of its people to both enact policies and pay the cost required to maintain this pristine environment. Since all Chinese can’t emigrate to Vancouver (no matter how furiously they try), can we instead learn from their experience to improve our own polluted environment?

This article was contributed by Eveline, an environmental specialist based in Vancouver, BC.

The Electronic Recycling Programs in BC

Since 2007, consumers in BC have paid eco fees (green levies) to fund the proper disposal of electronic waste. BC has been at the forefront of this fight in North America with over 15 programs in total and counting – recycling everything from smoke alarms to TVs to fluorescent lights. These programs are fully run by the manufacturers or importers of these goods in BC and funded by eco fees paid at the point of purchase. The eco fees cover the cost of collection, transportation and safe disposal as well as associated administrative costs.

These policies are based on the concept of Extended Producer Responsibility, developed by Swedish economics professor Thomas Lindhqvist. It states that (a) a manufacturer’s responsibility includes taking back the broken products they produce and (b) the environmental cost of production and disposal must be included in a product’s total life-cycle cost. It has been implemented by governments worldwide as the way to best manage waste from manufactured goods.

What happens to the used electronic products after I recycle it?

After paying an eco fee upon purchase, you can drop the product off, free of charge, at designated recycling facilities located all over the city. The device is then sorted and dismantled into its various parts. Machines separate out the various metals, which are then melted down and shipped out to be turned into new products. Plastic and glass are also sold to be turned into new products.  Rare elements like lithium and mercury are also removed and re-introduced into the supply chain to make new products. Any money earned is returned to fund the recycling program. Continue reading

Agri-Park

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Here is our analysis of the new Agricultural Policy issued by the Hong Kong government.

The Pantheon 

The government is proposing to spend HKD 7 billion to encourage the development and growth of the agriculture sector by establishing a 80 hectare “Agri-Park”. While this is all well and good, the first question we must ask is: what is the governments track record in nurturing sectors other than real estate? The Pantheon of government schemes that produce nothing (other than taxpayer funded or subsidised construction projects) includes: the Science Park, the EcoPark, a CyberPort, an Innocentre and numerous others.

No Pain No Gain

The government will acquire privately-owned agricultural land (including land within the country park zone) from landowners to build the Agri-Park. In a market economy, when supply is fixed and demand increases (due to the government entering the market as a large buyer), prices will rise. The resulting increase in land rental cost will in effect be detrimental to existing farmers. This scheme will hurt the farmers that it is purportedly trying to help.

In this case the pain will be borne by the farmers and gain will be reaped by the construction industry, landowners and bureaucrats.

Innovative Bureaucrats: An Oxymoron 

A farmer’s investment is largely comprised of his time and effort in improving the land. Through weeding, cultivation, and enrichment of the soil a farmer creates an environment optimal for plant growth. Unlike a software company incubated in a technology park, the farmer cannot simply move. This scheme can only have been thought up by “innovative” bureaucrats whose experience of farming consists largely of playing FarmVille. Continue reading

Cancer and Food

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Can you guess which one is organic? Read on to find out

Many people exhibit a sudden interest in organic food when they or someone in their family has been afflicted with cancer. Are they just grasping for links or is there any factual basis for their concern that the way modern food is grown can contribute to cancer? Let’s review how conventional leafy green vegetables, such as Choi Sum or Bak Choi, are typically grown in Hong Kong. All the chemicals listed below are approved and readily available for sale in Hong Kong.

Step 1

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Prior to growing a new crop, conventional chemical farmers spray a broad-spectrum systemic herbicide, such as Glyphosate, to kill weeds in the soil. “Broad-spectrum” means that it is effective against a wide a variety of plants – it is toxic not only to the weeds but also to the vegetables that will subsequently be planted. However, it’s concentration will have been diminished by the time the vegetables are planted. The residual toxicity will still weaken the vegetable and slow its growth. A weaker plant is more susceptible to pests and disease. As such, farmers need to apply higher quantities of pesticide later on to protect the crop from insect attacks.

Several recent studies showed glyphosate potential adverse health effects to humans as it may be an endocrine disruptor. It induces human breast cancer cells growth via oestrogen receptor. 

Step 2 Continue reading

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