Individual Action Leads to Change

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A day before the Earth Day, a friend posted the photos above on Facebook with the following message “Don’t tell me using disposables has nothing to do with climate change. For a room full of scientists, engineers, policy makers, researchers and people otherwise dedicating their waking hours to addressing this issue, I don’t understand how one can eat, drink and socialize without confronting this harrowing irony. I was hungry and grabbed a piece of sandwich, but before I finished I had completely lost my appetite…. If we can’t stop rising sea levels from devouring Pacific islands, we can at least try to save ourselves from plastic hell. And apparently, we aren’t even doing that…”

Friends responding to her post asked if she had spoken to the organiser about it. She replied that she did not because she was so dismayed by it that she had to leave. She did email the organiser with a suggestion to stop using disposable plates, cups and cutlery, but was not optimistic that they could ditch the disposables the very next day.  In order to ensure that the organisers received my friend’s suggestion, I helped share her post and emailed it to the board of directors of one of the joint organisers. That evening, I received a reply from the chairperson of the board, which starts out:

Dear Rachel,

“We cannot change the world in one day. ”

I was very disappointed. We are actually not talking about one day, but one whole year. Last year, the joint organiser of this conference, also co-organised the Earth Day Summit and was caught handing out plastic bottled water to participants and was widely criticised for it. This year, they failed to learn that lesson and repeated the same, if not worse, mistake by handing out disposable plates, cups and cutlery. On the very next day of this Conference, the disposable plates and cutlery had been replaced by ceramic plates and metal cutlery! It turns out that we were able to change the world (at least a little) in one day! We owe joint organisers a big THANK YOU for responding to our suggestion and changing for the better overnight.  We hope that they’ll remember this when organising future conferences so that we won’t need to send them similar reminders year after year.

Here is another example of how individual action can lead to change.  A young woman whose family owns a wholesale fruit business told me that they used to supply coconuts to a very large supermarket chain wrapped in foam mesh (to avoid coconuts being damaged during shipping). As a result of complaints from customers and green groups about the environmentally unfriendly packaging, the supermarket chain requested that they stop packing the coconuts in foam (especially since the hard shell provides ample protection). This caused a ripple effect through the supply chain – the Thai exporter no longer packs the coconuts destined for this supermarket chain in foam – reducing the amount of waste ending up in our landfill.

Feeling hopeful?  Let’s speak up to make change happen!

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Soap Cycling

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Most hotels provide bars of soap to guests, but rarely will these bar soap be used up by the time the guests check out.  I always find it extremely wasteful for hotels to throw away these otherwise still usable bars of soap, and that is why I always bring them home and continue to use them.  Yet I understand 99% of the population will not do that…who wants the hassle?  Therefore, years ago, I was excited to learn about a global initiative to recycle these bars of soap so children in the developing world can wash their hands.

I was even more excited to see a similar initiative launched in Hong Kong. Soap Cycling is a nonprofit organization founded by Mr. David Bishop who is a lecturer at the University of Hong Kong, Faculty of Business and Economics.  It works with the hospitality industry to collect, sanitize and recycle slightly used soaps and other sanitation amenities. These items are then distributed to underprivileged families and schools in disadvantaged communities around the world where the lack of proper hygiene can result in life threatening illnesses.

Since I joined the Soap Cycling’s cycling trip to Fujian during Easter holiday, I was invited to visit and volunteer at its factory in Shenzhen before the trip. The recycling process starts with using a paint blade scraper to remove any dirt from those slightly used soaps.  Then soap is poured into a machine which breaks them into small chunks. Next, the small chucks of soap are put into another machine which grinds them into even smaller pieces. Finally, the smaller pieces are put into a machine which combine them and molds them into new bars of soap.  The soap is then extruded from the machine and needs to be manually cut into individual bars each measures roughly 4.5 cm long. It was delightful to  participate in the process which gives a second life to these slightly used bars of soap which would otherwise have gone to the landfill.

Soap Cycling is the first organisation of its kind in Asia, and is operated largely through student volunteers from HKU.  Students who enrol in the Venture Management Internship Course become interns of Soap Cycling during the semester.  To obtain real world experience in operating a non-profit organisation is invaluable for the students. The constant influx of interns also brings in new ideas and energy, helping to maintain momentum and “freshness”. In contrast, some non-profit organisations that rely solely on full-time employees have difficulty improving.

For example, as a volunteer, I noticed the soap was bending as it was extruded because of a difference in height between the extruder and the cutting table.  It caused the long bar to crack and the cracked soap needs to be cut off and returned to the shredding machine to go through the whole recycling process again. I suggested to them to raise the height of the table to reduce this waste and they have stated they will implement the change.

DO WE KNOW OUR SOIL?

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Written By Lau Hoi Lung. Translated by Angeline Chan.

Soaring property prices, shortage of elderly homes, lack of places for people to enjoy intimate relationships – it seems as though no social problem in Hong Kong is far removed from land issues. The government keeps banging on about limited land supply, lending credence to the saying “Hong Kong is a densely populated city”. Studies on low interest rates and injustice in land distribution have already shown that this saying may well be false. Putting this aside, is it true that building housing is the most important use of land? To form a better idea of what our ideal city should look like, we need to address collusion between the government, developers, rural interests and triads – and more importantly, we should have a renewed understanding of land. The writer will start from soil – one thing that city dwellers give little if any thought to.

WHAT MAKES SOIL FERTILE?

Soil is made of more than sand and stones. In fact, it is primarily made of three parts. Almost half consists of minerals from the weathering erosion of rock and sedimentation of eroded materials. Soil formed from the erosion of tuff (a kind of volcanic rock) or from river bank sediments is the most fertile. Soil from granite is less fertile, and least fertile is soil from sedimentary rocks. The other portion of soil consists of the gaps occupied by air and water. When the soil is dry, air is dominant; when it is damp, water displaces the air in bubbles. The size of grains in the soil determine capacity for water retention and drainage. The third and smallest portion, at about 5%, is organic matter. Yet this is precisely the determining factor of fertility, and even the key to human survival.

Organic matter is formed by the decomposition of organisms. On a hike, brushing away fallen leaves on the ground will reveal humus, which is decaying organic matter. Incredible things occur on the microscopic level. Microorganisms and the hyphae of fungi bind different minerals together, creating soil aggregates of different sizes. These aggregates are not easily compacted, and between them allow for a balance between air and water. These aggregates carry nutrients and form the perfect medium for plants to thrive. Without organic matter, soil would become like sand on the beach: loose, disconnected, and incapable of carrying moisture. In fact, much of the nutrients absorbed by plants are excretions from microorganisms living in the soil.

The quantity of organic matter in soil turns on a few factors: the amount of fallen leaves; the speed of their decomposition; and speed of their further transformation into gases such as carbon dioxide. There is a common misconception that tropical rainforests, being the most diverse ecosystems, are richest in decomposing matter. In fact, due to the high temperature and humidity, fallen leaves quickly decompose and turn into gases. Grasslands in temperate climates actually have higher portions of decomposing matter. Hence the famed “black earth” regions of Ukraine, the US and North-eastern China. To summarize, the fertility of soil is determined by the intertwining factors of geology, climate, and accumulation of organic matter. Apart from these natural factors, the human process of growing food is another essential factor affecting soil fertility.

THE SOIL FEEDS US

A famed line from local film Overheard 3 (2014) goes: “land is for nurturing life.” Yet it is undeniable that farming does affect soil and the underlying ecosystem. As our ancestors shifted from being hunter-gatherers to growers, we gained control over land. We classified plants that we could not eat as weeds and thought of them as our crops’ competitors for nutrients and space. We classified animals that ate crops as pests, and those which ate pests as beneficial. We thus passed judgments of “good” or “bad” upon natural processes, which in themselves have no normative value.

With the removal of weeds, soil becomes constantly exposed to sun and rain. Tilling the soil improves drainage, yet further exacerbates the vicious cycle of soil erosion. This is because tilling exposes hidden organic matter to air and sunshine, accelerating its oxidation. At the same time, pruning and harvest reduce the supply of organic matter and hence the supply of ingredients. Without the connections offered by soil aggregates, soil compacts easily, and farmers till the land more frequently… To keep the soil productive, farmers use mulch to cover the soil, and increase organic content by adding fertilizers and soil conditioners like manure and peanut meal.

Agriculture in Hong Kong in the early 20th century relied on these methods. In rural areas, villagers collected manure by themselves. In urban areas, the government established manure stations to collect human excrement (known as nightsoil). Upon treatment, this was transported to fields in the New Territories for use as fertilizer. Vegetables and rice grown in this manner were sold back to urban dwellers for consumption. This mutual exchange of resources between urban and rural areas was only disrupted in the late 1960’s.

With technological advancement, we increased the productivity of soil. Yet this has also brought many side effects. With the end of World War II came the “Green Revolution”, and petroleum-based pesticides and fertilizers became the order of the day. Many Hong Kong farmers came to favour use of chemical fertilizer over manure. This marked the shift from traditional agriculture to conventional agriculture. Chemical fertilizer is highly soluble and efficient. But as it fails to supplement organic matter, prolonged reliance reduces the soil organic matter content to as low as 2%. At the same time, manure became characterized as refuse rather than a resource. This shift in farming methods also had repercussions for the livestock industry. As manure came to be seen as waste, chicken and pig pens were no longer designed to collect manure. Instead, manure was an unwanted byproduct, to be disposed of as quickly and as cheaply as possible. Often, this meant disposal into the nearest river – which is why the Shing Mun River and Lam Tsuen River became so heavily polluted that only extremely hardy fish such as catfish and carp could survive. The Kam Tin River continues to be severely polluted to this day. In the 80’s, the government sought to control the damage by promoting organic farming, and there are over a hundred organic farms in Hong Kong today. The irony is that while organic farmers buy Dutch chicken manure and other organic fertilizers from halfway around the world, manure from 3 million local chickens is dumped into landfills.

SUSTAINABILITY IS ONLY POSSIBLE IF WE TREASURE OUR SOIL

Amidst burgeoning New Towns and small houses, we still have 4,000 hectares of agricultural land – although over 80% is abandoned. Brownfields suffer a worse fate, and end up covered in construction waste, oil and toxic electronic waste. In recent years, calls for revitalizing agriculture have become more popular. Yet we cannot simply take the approach of increasing productivity, lest we make the same mistakes as those of the Green Revolution. It is precisely because we have forgotten the story of soil that we now have problems such as excess kitchen waste, fly-tipping and brownfields.

Even if we revitalize agriculture, we should be careful how we grow. Agriculture in itself is the practice of intervening in nature to collect food. Growing methods range from natural farming, in which no fertilizer is used, to hydroponics, where no soil is used. What sets them – and everything in between – apart is how we choose to treat the soil. Do we respect it and cooperate with it, or do we try to control it? History has told us time and again that the attempt to conquer nature can backfire within the same generation.

Returning organic matter from the city, such as kitchen waste, to the land does more than help to grow good food. There is actually more carbon contained in soil than in the atmosphere and land organisms. In the Paris Climate Change Conference early last year, the French government put forward the 4 per 1000 initiative. Increasing organic matter in the soil by 4/1000 every year not only aids food production, but also helps control release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by carbon sequestration in soil. As it turns out, while heads of state and diplomats quibble over carbon emissions, only to come up with compromises that are easily repealed by the next incumbent, it is in the hands of each city and each community to use our own soils to control the situation. We cannot distance ourselves by saying that Hong Kong is a financial city – our lifestyle consumes the resources of 3.9 planets combined. Steps have to be taken – if not for the next generation, then for our own remaining years on this planet.

(Author’s note: Thanks to Professor Chau Kwai Cheong from the Department of Geography and Resource Management, CUHK, for inspiring students that soil is not dirt.)

Old sofa starts a new life

Whenever I need new a piece of furniture or appliance, I always go on Facebook and ask if anyone I know has a second hand piece for me.  For example, a  few years ago I asked on Facebook to see if anyone has a spare sofa.  A friend responded almost immediately and sent me an IKEA sofa bed which looked brand new when it arrived.  Unfortunately the sofa cover came under constant attack by my cats and two years later it started to look shabby and worn (the above photo on the left).

I thought I just needed to go to IKEA to grab a new sofa cover.  To my surprise I could not find one that fitted my sofa.  I asked a sales rep and he replied: “We only sell sofa covers for models which are currently sold in IKEA.  Your sofa model had been discontinued and hence we do not have the matching sofa cover for you.”  I cannot understand the logic of this.  Of course only when a sofa gets old does it needs a new cover.  Who would need an extra cover for a brand new sofa?!  I went online to search for a solution.  A US website was selling sofa covers specifically for discontinued IKEA sofa models.  However the price was  not cheap and I needed to pay for delivery from US to Hong Kong.

I then asked a seamstress in the wet market if she could help me sew a cover, but she told me that she only did clothes alternation.  There are also numerous shops in every neighbourhood which specialise in sewing curtains but none of them offer to sew sofa covers.

It would be ridiculous for me to throw away this sofa which but for the worn cover is still in great condition (originally sold by IKEA at HKD 6000) and hence I refused to.  Though I must admit that it was quite depressing to look at this worn sofa cover on a daily basis.

Upon hearing the sad story of my sofa cover, a friend who happens to travel to Shenzhen quite often kindly offered to help me look for seamstresses who would make sofa cover in Shenzhen.  It turned out that there are quite a few in the Luo Hu Shopping Arcade which is just right next to the Shenzhen train station.  After a few rounds of discussion and negotiation, a deal was finally made at RMB 1300.  My sofa now has got a nice new cover, as you can see in the above photo on the right.

My message to IKEA: producer responsibility should include extending the life span of its product so that it does not end up in the landfill prematurely.  IKEA should offer to sell sofa covers for its discontinued sofa models.

HKU Takes the Lead to Ban Bottled Water

The University of Hong Kong(HKU)has taken the lead to become the first university in Hong Kong to ban bottled water on campus. Ditch Disposable is a campus-wide campaign led by the HKU Sustainability Office to reduce plastic waste by targeting single-use plastic water bottles and other disposable containers across campus. It starts with an initiative to eliminate single-use plastic water bottles of 1 litre or less at University events, restaurants, retail outlets and vending machines. Sales of water bottles of 1 litre or less will cease from July 1st 2017.  Faculties, departments, caterers and student groups have pledged to Ditch Disposable and Choose Reusable and be early champions.  In order to ensure compliance with their Ditch Disposable commitment, the HKU Sustainability Office has also prepared a toolkit which provides support and guidance to staff members responsible for purchasing goods and event management sustainably.

In order to allow students and staff members to witness the harm caused by plastic waste to the environment, the HKU Sustainability Office and Water for Free co-organized a beach cleanup at Lap Sap Bay on March 18th 2017.  In less than 1.5 hours, the 20 plus participants picked up more than 3000 plastic beverage bottles, over half of which were water bottles.  The most special item being picked up (in the photo above) was Watson’s water bottle with a best before date of March 15th 1997.  It serves as a stark reminder of the fact that these plastic bottles we threw away are actually here to stay.

After the beach cleanup, we went to the nearby Swire Institute of Marine Science (SWIMS) of HKU for debriefing.  Researcher on microbeads explained how plastic waste has adversely affected the marine ecosystem and confirmed to us that plastic has indeed entered our food chain. The director of SWIMS, while giving us a brief introduction of the history and research works of SWIMS, mentioned the regrettable news that their research works have been seriously disturbed by the recent influx of tourists. May I take this opportunity to urge those who are interested to  visit the shores of Hong Kong’s only Marine Reserve to stay away?  Let’s go to Lap Sap Bay to pick up some plastic bottles instead.

Waste-No-Mall

On Legco Election Day last September, I travelled from Fanling to Yuen Long to help with campaigning.  Before that I was having lunch at a McDonald’s and started chatting with an auntie named Ching sharing the table with me. Auntie Ching and I exchanged phone numbers and thereafter she sent me Whatsapp messages once every few weeks asking me when I will be back to Yuen Long to see her.  Hence last Saturday I decided to invite Auntie Ching to the Waste-No-Mallevent located in Yuen Long town centre.   

Waste-No-Mall, is a weekend market event which combines recycling, free-cycle, surplus food distribution and eco-workshop. It takes place every Saturday from 4 to 6 p.m. in Yuen Long on Fung Yau Street North next to the public playground and is operated by the campaign team of LegCo member Chu Hoi Dick.  I was well prepared for the free-cycle.  I brought along with me a leather belt which I haven’t worn for years, a pair of shoes which I brought from Oxfam store but a size too small and a book which I had finished reading.  After putting down my items for others to pick up, I showed Auntie Ching around.  Before our meeting, Auntie Ching had just spent 200 bucks shopping for clothes.  Hence she found it unbelievable that everything displayed at the free-cycle is literally FREE.   Only after explanation by a passionate volunteer mending the booth that Auntie Ching finally gathered enough courage to pick up a bottle of past-best-by-date body lotion and a glass jug.  I got myself a brand new eyewear cleaning cloth and a white board eraser.

After our treasure hunt, I went to the clothing rack and chatted with the volunteer mending the rack.  Two young women walked past and were contemplating what it was about.  The volunteer seized the chance to explain how free-cycle works and the reasoning behind.  While they were very supportive of the idea of sharing stuff as well as kindness, and said they would bring their clothes for sharing in the coming weeks, they were frank enough to tell us that they were on their way to shop for new clothes.  It will probably be a long conversion process starting from dropping off pre-owned clothes to becoming part of the minimalist/ green movement.  A good start anyway…

Different from conventional politicians, Chu Hoi Dick has no interest in empty talks.  He has vision about the future of Hong Kong, and he is good at implementation and execution.  Thanks to all the great works done by his team of volunteers, this makeshift Waste-no-mall is taking place every Saturday from 4 to 6 p.m. next to a playground.  What a contrast to the  Eastern Community Green Station, which receives over 10 million HK dollars public funding from the HKSAR government and occupies thousands of square feet of usable space underneath the Eastern Corridor in Sai Wan Ho but only holding free-cycle event once every three months. 

Edited by Iris Leung

Pledging not to buy new clothing this season

It’s late November, and the cool weather has finally arrived in Hong Kong.  I have committed myself to Jup Yeah‘s (Jup Yeah means “pick up stuff” in Cantonese) campaign by pledging not to buy new clothing this season.  As proclaimed by its website: know your style, change your consumption habits, and pick up pre-loved clothing instead of shopping for new clothes.

In order to boost its sales volume, fashion brands, especially fast-fashion brands, have moved at a dizzying speed, creating trend after trend. These apparel chains spend huge amounts of money in advertisement and celebrity endorsements, creating an illusion that everyone has to follow the newest fashion trends. Once you are taken in by this illusion, you are made to believe your old clothing is deemed ‘unwearable’ and so you had to shop for new clothes, and discard your old clothes. By doing so not only are you filling up the clothing donation bin outside your building, you are also filling up the bank account of these fast fashion tycoons. No wonder so many of them ranked in the top 100 richest people in the world.

In addition to further enriching the already filthy-rich, fast-fashion is also causing great harm to the environment.  Clothing which consumes a lot of energy and causes a huge amount of pollution to produce is being sold as almost disposable items. In an attempt to wake Hong Kongers up from this illusion, one weekend in early November, Jup Yeah brought hundreds of pieces of pre-owned clothing to Causeway Bay on a bicycle cart and handed them away to people who have made the pledge not to purchase new clothing for a season.

In case you’ve missed out the above event, no worries, you can still go shopping at pre-owned clothing social-eco enterprise Green Ladies. I visited the new location at Tai Kok Chui on Lai Chi Kok Road ( 10 minutes walk from Prince Edward MTR station) two weeks ago. The store has simple design, with slogans on the wall saying “Women empowerment. Try before you buy” and the clothes are arranged according to colours. Every piece of clothing comes with a tag informing customers with facts stating the impact on fashion. For example, “In China, the garment manufacturing industry emits 2.37 tonnes of waste water every year, which ranks no. 3 amongst all industries. ” All these details demonstrate the values behind Green Ladies’ commitment to provide middle-aged women employment opportunities and encourage eco-friendly consumption habits, and at the same time, raise awareness and educate consumers on the hidden environmental impact of the garment industry, which I deeply share.

On my way back to Prince Edward MTR station, I walked in the Salvation Army thrift store.  In contrast to the quietness and meticulousness of Green Ladies, Salvation Army thrift store is a place for a treasure hunt.  During my visit I found a pre-owned cotton+ linen dress for HKD 55.  By the way, holder of senior citizen cards can enjoy 15% discount.

 

Edited by Iris Leung

撲水! Water for Free!

 

 

The idea for “Water for Free” originated three years ago in an effort to reduce environmental damage caused by plastic bottles. With no financial resources, our initial plan was to map out the water fountains and dispensers throughout Hong Kong on google map and publish it onto our wordpress website. Luckily, Nuthon IT Solutions Limited volunteered to develop the iPhone mobile phone app and WYNG Foundation volunteered to develop the Android mobile phone app for Water for Free. By downloading the app, one can easily locate a water fountain or dispenser nearby and drink “water for free” rather than paying for outrageously overpriced bottled water, and in turn reduces the number of plastic bottles entering our landfills and ocean every day.

Thanks to a growing number of users and their efforts in notifying Water for Free of new water dispenser locations, we have mapped out over 1000 water dispenser locations on our Water for Free app. In the past year, a number of fast food chains (including McDonalds, Cafe de Coral, Maxim MX and Yoshinoya) have installed water dispensers at their newly renovated branches. Although their reason for doing so has nothing to do with environmental concerns (patrons use these self-serve water dispenser instead of asking their staff for water, hence lowers labour cost), installing water dispensers at such convenient locations has brought unintentional benefits of reducing the need for bottled water as it has become more convenient for people to refill their reusable water bottles. In addition to the unintentional good deed by the fast food industry, recently we have been contacted by an independent restaurants, coffee shops and community centres – they welcomed everyone to come to their premise and use their water dispensers for free. Salute to their generosity and love for the environment.

In order to step up our effort to SAY NO TO BOTTLED WATER, we stepped out of the virtual world. On 25 September 2016, we installed three water dispensers in the West Kowloon Culture Zone to provide Water for Free to all participants of the Pink Dot HK event. Thanks to the event organizer’s love and support for the environment, we recorded over 3000 participants drinking water or refilling water bottles from the three water dispensers during the 5 hour event. Without these water dispensers, participants would be forced to buy bottled water widely available from the vending machines which are PERMENANTLY placed in the West Kowloon Zone. In other words, the presence of our water dispensers there has successfully averted the consumption of 3000 plus bottled water, and eliminated the 3000 plus plastic bottles that would inevitably end up in the landfill or into the ocean. At the same time, we encouraged participants drinking from our water dispensers to download our Water for Free mobile phone app, which can help them locate nearby water fountains and dispensers around Hong Kong and make a conscientious effort to abandon the bad habit of buying bottled water.

According to the 2014 Waste Statistics issued by the Environmental Protection Department (EPD), Hong Kong produces 132 tons of PET plastic waste daily. Each bottle weighs about 25 grams. This means that we throw away over 5 million PET bottles per day. Instead of responsibly addressing the waste issue caused by their products, beverage companies spend huge amounts on advertising designed to convince us to buy ever more of their products. The fact that their products are filling up our landfills and killing wildlife – birds, fish and sea turtles eat broken pieces of plastic mistaking it for food – is not their problem. It is ours. So we are asking for your help to do your part for the environment, please use a reusable beverage bottles.

To download the app, please click here

Translated and edited by Iris Leung