Apr 19, 2012|
Think about all those times you’ve let your food go bad in the fridge and then thrown it away. Then think of your uncleared plates at the last restaurant you ate in. The uneaten bread basket. The barely-touched buffet. Then multiply that by 7 million. Scary, isn’t it? Each day, Hongkongers collectively generate some 3,200 tons of food waste. Not only does it put a strain on our landfills, it’s also wasteful. With so many of Hong Kong’s poor struggling to feed their families, disposing of our unwanted meals feels almost criminal. Fortunately, there are some enterprising folks out there who are doing their bit to make sure all those leftovers don’t go to waste. But despite their excellent efforts, it’s up to the government to lead the charge to make sure we don’t clog up our landfills with surplus food. Read on to learn all about Hong Kong’s food waste heroes, and what the government is doing (or not doing enough) to help them.
At day’s end, enterprising workers from Green Hong Kong gather up unsold wet market vegetables to make cheap, nourishing meals.
Fried vegetables. Homemade pickles. Carrot and corn soup. Looking at these colorful, delicious vegetarian dishes, you would never guess that they were made from discarded wet market vegetables. These dishes are churned out in the kitchen of Tai Po-based NGO Green Hong Kong, which is linked to a training center of the Confederation of Trade Unions. Students from the training center can pay just $20 to enjoy a six-course vegetarian lunch with soup. Thanks to the work of Green Hong Kong, tons of fresh, edible vegetables from the neighboring Fu Shin wet market escape being transported to landfills.
Many may not realize that wet markets are big contributors to food waste. Under the current practice, wholesalers offer stall holders a fixed amount of vegetables at a very low price—a good way for them to guarantee that a high volume of vegetables will be sold. Even though vendors usually cannot sell all vegetables, they are not incentivized to order less from wholesalers, and a smaller order may even cost them more. Seeing the severity of the situation, Green Hong Kong was set up in 2009, back when few Hongkongers were aware of the mounting problem of food waste.
However, the concept of food recycling in Hong Kong was very new, and many vendors viewed them with suspicion. Cheng Jie, a full-timer who helps Green Hong Kong collect vegetables and cook meals, reminisces about the earlier days. “The vendors didn’t understand why we collected the vegetables, and they were afraid that we would resell them. So, some of them would ask us to go away,” Cheng says. “We didn’t have experience. We once went to the back alleys and saw a bucket of vegetables. We thought that we had finally found something, and used our bare hands to pick them up. But beneath the layer of vegetables, it was all garbage. It was so dirty!” Slowly, the vendors softened up when they saw Cheng Jie and her fellow workers at the market every day—even during typhoons and heavy rain—to try and collect discarded vegetables. A friendship has since flourished between the workers from Green Hong Kong and vendors. “We took 11 days’ leave during the Easter holiday. When we came back, the vendors said that they missed us and even kept some less perishable vegetables for us to take back!” says another worker, Pik Kiu.
Green Hong Kong has been running for three years, and all the hard work has paid off. The NGO now has six staff; they visit Fu Shin Market twice a week, bringing back 200 kilos of vegetables after every visit. “I think we have accomplished more than we originally planned. When we first started, we couldn’t refer to what other NGOs were doing because no other organization was doing the same thing,” says program officer Zoey Wong. “We have built a strong network in the neighborhood, and we have also raised Hongkongers’ awareness of the food waste problem.” Last year, its funding stopped, but fortunately, the organization has succeeded in finding more donors through various means such as guided tours and talks. Looking into the future, Green Hong Kong’s staff will increase their visits and they will pick up vegetables every night. Perhaps every district needs one organization like Green Hong Kong to stop perfect, edible vegetables rotting in our rapidly filling landfills.
Food charities run a risk of getting sued if a beneficiary falls sick from donated goods. If they are to continue to do good work, they need to be protected by the law.
While there is no doubt that Green Hong Kong and the Foodlink Foundation are doing admirable work, these charities run a risk of being legally liable if cases of food poisoning arise as a result of the donated food.
“The charities might have to bear legal responsibility [in such a case],” says Eric Cheung Tat-ming, associate law professor at the University of Hong Kong. He also adds that a disclaimer from beneficiaries would not be effective in cases of injury and death.
However, food donors in the United States are free from such fears. In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act. With this law, donors who give away food in good faith are protected from bearing civil and criminal liabilities. In Canada and Australia, similar laws have also been introduced.
Dr. Chung Shan-shan of Hong Kong Baptist University urges the government to introduce a similar law. “Hong Kong is a very cold society. The whole legal system discourages people from helping others. It’s better to dump food than get sued; such mentality is absolutely unethical,” Chung exclaims.
Foodlink Foundation works with the city’s leading hotels to provide hot, healthy meals from buffet leftovers.
While the ladies from Green Hong Kong are striving to salvage food from wet markets, Foodlink Foundation, a like-minded NGO, is working to salvage food thrown away by hotels and restaurants to people whose stomachs are rumbling in hunger.
Back in 2001, Vanessa Hwang dined at a hotel and found that there were huge piles of food left over. Finding it unbearably wasteful, she asked the staff whether she could take the food away and give it to the needy. As her resourcefulness became a regular habit, she decided to found the Foodlink Foundation. The operation was suspended in 2003, when the SARS epidemic hit Hong Kong, and then in 2009, Mrs. Hwang passed the project to her daughters.
Foodlink focuses on recycling leftover food—hot dishes in particular—from hotels citywide. And among all the fare offered by hotels, it’s the buffets that create most waste. “That’s why we work more closely with hotels than restaurants. Because with restaurants, you can order a la carte and they don’t have to make the food until someone orders. Whereas with buffets, the food is cooked and it sits there,” says Robin Hwang, the fundraising director. “Unfortunately, it’s just part for the hospitality industry that they have to create the waste, particularly in Hong Kong where there are so many hotels and so many buffets. At a five-star hotel, it has to be as plentiful at 3pm as it does at 12pm.” Also, any food that doesn’t look perfect—for instance, fruit with tiny black spots—will not be used. Foodlink often receives lamb chops, grilled beef, and even lobsters.
When Foodlink was relaunched in 2009, they had only three hotels working with them. But today, 41 donors, including international hotel groups such as the Grand Hyatt, are giving their leftovers to Foodlink, and 27 NGOs are benefitting from the scheme. “The chefs do feel bad throwing food away. A chef from the Langham came to visit us. He was so moved that he started crying. He came from a very difficult background and growing up, he didn’t have that much food either. I guess he was touched by the Foodlink movement,” says Hwang. In order to gain trust and confidence from hotel groups, Foodlink has worked incessantly on hygiene. Their routine is simple. Foodlink sends refrigerated vans to hotels to collect leftover food, pack them in sealed boxes, and within an hour, the vehicle will reach the beneficiary’s doorstep. The organization has also come up with a set of strict guidelines for recipients on food-handling to ensure that no one will get sick. It gives detailed instructions on the temperature, storage and waste disposal.
In Hong Kong, many are struggling to fill their stomachs. For the one million people who are living in poverty, hot dishes are something that they can’t eat on a daily basis. Even if people seek help from government-sponsored food banks, they will mostly get prepackaged or canned food, which is no good for their health. By comparison, the food thrown away by hotels and restaurants is good quality and rich in nutrients. “The beneficiaries are eating well, and they should be eating well. If they are not eating the food [donated to Foodlink], the food would be thrown away anyway! It makes no sense to me when a hotel turns me down [to participate in the food donation scheme], and I can get very personal,” Hwang says jokingly.
Currently, Foodlink—which has two vans and full-time drivers—collects and transfers two tons of food, serving 2,200 meals per week. “It is a simple model that can be replicated as long as you have dedicated people,” Hwang says. The organization is now thinking of expanding into poverty-stricken districts such as Tin Shui Wai and Sham Shui Po. With the work of Foodlink, Hwang believes it’s a win-win situation for the hotels too. “For the hotels we are working with, we are picking up less and less food from them. They see how much food waste is generated, so the chefs have learned to cut back. So in fact, we are helping the hotels in the long run, figure out appropriate quantities of food. But that also means that we have to look to more hotels [for food donations],” she says.
Local entrepreneur Kowloon Wong has discovered a practical—and profitable—way of converting food waste into fish feed.
In a rural, deserted corner of Lower Pak Lai, a small factory with a sign that reads “Kowloon Biotechnology” stands alone. The plant, which is a little run-down and emanates an odd smell, hardly looks like a modern industrial firm, but it is the site where a local industrialist is realizing his dream of developing a lucrative business from food waste. His plan is to produce high-quality fish feed from the food we throw away every day.
As Hongkongers move towards financial investments and real estate speculation as means of making money, industries have long been declared dead. But for Kowloon Wong, the entrepreneur behind this biotechnological firm, he has come on a long journey in his search for business opportunities that also help Hong Kong to tackle its growing food waste problem. Wong’s story started seven years ago, when he was running a company that produced lunch boxes for primary schoolchildren. “After I started the business, I saw that a lot of food was thrown away… on average, schoolchildren will leave 50 percent of their food untouched,” Wong remarks.
Seeing huge piles of food waste, Wong sensed some business potential. A former pig farmer himself, he ventured into collecting food waste to sell as pig feed. However, with declining numbers of pig farmers—there are just 43 currently operating in Hong Kong after the government offered them compensation for surrendering their licenses—this age-old way of dealing with waste was no longer profitable.
Inspired by overseas experiences, Wong decided to try creating fish feed from discarded food to sell to fish farms. “The quality of food in Hong Kong is actually quite good, as there is a wide variety of nutrients. I thought of making fish food because in the food chain, fish will eat other fish. Therefore, even if food waste contains fish, it is still natural,” Wong says. Also, fish food is a high-value-added product: top quality fish feed can cost as much as $25,000 per ton, while manufacturers can only hope for $1,000 to $2,000 per ton of pig feed.
Creating fish feed from waste is no easy task, and Wong—who left school at 14—faced a steep learning curve. Nutritional needs vary between fish species, and the factory had to gain knowledge and develop different formulas—even down to the shape of the pellets. “For example, garoupa are very picky. If the fish food is not in a round shape, they refuse to swallow it. They’d rather die,” says Wong.
Right now, Wong’s 30,000-square-foot factory collects and processes 15 tons of food waste every day. It is a tough business: he ran at a loss for the first five years and doesn’t take a single day off throughout the year. So far, the government hasn’t provided any support—even though his business actually helps alleviate the problem of food waste. Wong hopes that his business can stand on its own, and only wants the government to help him with two things. “We hope to gain the endorsement of the Agricultural, Fisheries and Conservation Department, so that local fishermen will purchase our products,” Wong says. “Also, we want the government to help us with land. The government has a lot of unused land, especially in the New Territories, but its purpose is not known. We can keep going if the government rents some vacant land to us. In the New Territories, the landlords will not rent land to us on a long-term contract. Seeing that we’ve got so many machines, we are always worried that the landlord will keep increasing the rent.”
After seven years of struggling, Wong seems to be on the right track. He is now close to finishing developing fish feed for four types of fish; he is running at a small profit this year; and best of all, he has teamed up with a local biotech firm which has decided to expand the business. By September, the factory will move to a new site that is ten times larger than his current location. In the coming four years, they are talking about investing $100 million and increasing output to at least 100 tons per day. Speaking about the future, Wong’s eyes shine with excitement, strongly believing that there is a huge market for quality, Hong Kong-made fish feed. “Hong Kongers now want a healthier diet, and fish is the food to [eat],” Wong says. “Most fish farms feed fish with smaller fish. But in three years, trawling is going to be banned. They have to seek alternatives. There are around 1,000 fish farms in Hong Kong… and we haven’t even looked at the mainland market yet!”
What About the Government?
Green groups, charities and the industrial sector are all working hard to alleviate food waste in Hong Kong. But what is the government doing to tackle the problem?
Currently, the government is planning to build modern organic waste treatment facilities at two sites: Siu Ho Wan in North Lantau and Sha Ling in the New Territories. After collection, the food waste will first undergo an anaerobic process. Methane, a gas that can generate electricity, will be released. The residue will be composted and will then be fit to use as a fertilizer. The government estimates that around 28 million kilowatt hours of electricity will be generated by the two facilities, which is enough to power 6,000 households.
On the surface, the government’s plan paints a hopeful picture, but the two facilities will be able to handle at most 500 tons of food waste per day—that’s just one-sixth of food waste generated by Hong Kongers on a daily basis. Also, the construction of the facilities will be completed by 2015 and 2016 to 2017 respectively. If we don’t scale back, the volume of food waste will continue to surge, and the plant’s capacity of 500 tons will start to look pathetically small.
However, there are still unanswered questions in the government’s plan. Even after treatment and electricity generation, a huge amount of compost will still be left over. What is the government planning to do with it all? According to calculations made by biology professor Jonathan Wong Woon-chung from Hong Kong Baptist University, 25 percent of the weight of food waste will remain as compost after the [methane release] process. This translates to 45,625 tons of compost per year. “In Hong Kong, we can only use about 50,000 tons of compost, including farms and landscaping,” says Wong. Also, if the government has no other plan than using such organic waste treatment technologies to treat all the food waste generated in Hong Kong, which is 3,000 tons per day, it will mean that we will have about 300,000 tons of compost every year.
Wong is not optimistic about the possibility of selling Hong Kong-made compost overseas. “Compost is a very basic material. Without any added value or improvements, sales won’t be very high,” he says. The competition will be rife because other countries, especially developed places, have also considered selling compost as a solution to the food waste problem. “In terms of one’s carbon footprint, this is not an ideal solution either because you need to transport [the compost] overseas,” adds Wong.
If selling compost to other countries isn’t a viable solution, it will be necessary for Hong Kong to develop a local market that is able to consume more compost—and the government ought to take the lead. “In Hong Kong, the party that uses the largest amount of fertilizers is the government in various departments, including the Leisure and Cultural Services Department and Agricultural, Fisheries and Conservation Department,” says Dr. Chung Shan-shan of the Hong Kong Baptist University. If the government requires their contractors to use compost as fertilizers, at least some proportion of the compost can be used locally.
Handling food waste is a complex problem, and it should also be addressed on a level that factors in land use and development. “The government should open up more spaces for people to grow plants. I think that Hong Kong has the potential to develop urban farming,” says Angus Ho, executive director of environmental group Greeners Action. “Also, agriculture has been marginalized by the government. This is also a problem in the development of Hong Kong.”
But while building organic waste facilities is a step in the right direction, there is clearly a need to simply decrease the amount of food waste generated in Hong Kong. A consultation on charging citizens for waste-handling ended recently on April 10. Green groups welcome such a move. “After implementation of waste charging, the volume of waste reduced by 44 percent and 60 percent in Taiwan and Korea respectively,” says Celia Fung of Friends of the Earth. “If the government decides to start charging for waste, I think the business sector will think of ways to tap into the opportunities,” says Ho of Greeners Action.
However, before they start charging citizens for handling waste, the government needs to implement a proper system for collecting food waste. In the end, determination and a political impetus will be the key to the success of a food waste scheme in Hong Kong—something the government has yet to demonstrate.
The Way Forward
A new technology has the potential to effectively eliminate food waste and improve the quality of our soil.
One option that has yet to be explored in Hong Kong is a new technology called biochar. Biochar is a form of charcoal that’s made by burning organic waste. According to research, biochar is an effective fertilizer that can trap nutrients and beneficial micro-organisms in the soil for a long time. It also has the potential to mitigate the effects of global warming, as carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere and locked in the ground instead. “We could convert food waste into biochar, apply it to our farms and sell it to other countries. Of course, the price and investment would be higher because you need to build facilities to burn the waste in a process called pyrolysis [a thermochemical process which burns organic materials without oxygen],” says professor Jonathan Wong Woon-chung, who teaches biology at Hong Kong Baptist University.
Wong thinks that Hong Kong is a suitable place to implement the new biochar technology. “It takes a short time to handle the waste because it is burnt at a high temperature,” Wong says. “It is very similar to incineration and it doesn’t require that much of space either,” he adds. However, biochar is still a very new technology and its effectiveness is yet to be proved. In Australia, a pilot plant is already running. Perhaps this new technology could be a solution to our food waste woes, but much more research still needs to be done.
Food Waste By Numbers
How much we throw away, according to the goverment.
The government says that the business sector is responsible for less than one-third of the city’s food waste. But the numbers just don’t add up.
According to government data, 70 percent of food waste is generated by domestic units while the commercial and industrial sector only account for 30 percent of discarded food. With this unbelievably low waste figure from the business and industrial sector, the accuracy of such data has long been questioned by green groups.
“We don’t know the exact discrepancy between the government and actual data. In Hong Kong, there are about two million families, so I believe the actual volume of domestic waste would not be that great… We don’t actually know how the government has come up with the figure. But from what we observe in hotels, the catering industry and retailers, we just don’t believe the business sector creates only around 800 tons of food waste [per day],” says Celia Fung, environmental affairs officer at Friends of the Earth.
The government has done woefully little research into the area of food waste. No detailed study has been conducted to look into the volume of food waste created by businesses, making it difficult to set up targets for waste reduction. Also, it is extremely difficult to trace discarded food. For instance, if a supermarket gets rid of milk by pouring the liquid away, it would be impossible to include this in the official data.
Dr. Chung Shan-shan, who teaches biology at Hong Kong Baptist University, sheds some light into the unconvincing ratio. “In Hong Kong, the definition of domestic waste does not only refer to waste generated by households. It also includes rubbish from garbage bins and institutional waste—for example the trash collected from wet markets arranged by the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department,” Chung explains. “Rubbish collected from refuse collection points is also considered domestic waste, even though the commercial and industrial sectors also dump waste there.”
Label Us Confused
Hard-to-interpret food labels often mean that perfectly good food is thrown away by uninformed consumers.
In February, Friends of the Earth recruited 122 families and conducted a month-long study about household behavior in terms of food waste. “Very preliminary results show that about 20 to 30 percent of food is discarded because the food is expired,” says Celia Fung of Friends of the Earth.
However, just because something is past its expiry date, doesn’t mean that it’s inedible. In Hong Kong’s food dating system, there are two kinds of dates: “use by” and “best before.” “If the food in question poses a great health risk past a certain date, the ‘use by’ date will be printed on the labels. An obvious sample is fresh milk,” says Dr. Leung Ka-shing, who teaches food safety at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. “But for ‘best before’, the date is set because of quality.” So, the conclusion goes: perishable food which is labeled “use by,” should be eaten quickly; but food that is labeled as “best before,” can still be consumed safely within a certain period of time.
Leung says that we should use our best judgment when it comes to determining the edibility of prepackaged food. “Human intuition is very sensitive, and we can tell when food has gone bad better than machines. Of course, the elderly and people with health problems should not take the risk,” Leung says. If the food has a funny smell or the packaging has puffed up, it’s better to throw it away. But if the “best before” date has only passed by a day or two, it would be a waste to discard the still-edible food.