Why does Muji package its organic underwear in plastic?

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I usually buy clothing from second-hand clothing stores.  However, for underwear and socks I can only buy new ones.  For years I have been looking for organic cotton underwear.  Why cotton?  Because cotton underwear is breathable, which helps to reduce bacterial vaginal infection. Why organic? Today 25% of the insecticide used worldwide is applied to conventionally grown cotton, even though cotton fields occupy less than 3% of the world’s farmland. Many of these agro-chemicals are similar to the nerve agents and bio-inhibitors used in chemical warfare during WWI, so it’s no surprise the higher rates of birth defects and cancer have been found in both humans and wildlife surrounding cotton fields.

In the past, I bought organic cotton underwear made in Taiwan, but their cutting and colour reminded me of granny’s panties. I also tried to buy online from PACT. I like their cutting and pattern. But for international order I need to buy at least USD 100 worth of underwear, and pay another USD 10 for postage. Not long ago I walked in Muji and discovered that it had start to sell organic cotton underwear.  Great! I wanted to buy some. But then my attention was drawn to that heavy-duty plastic it was packaged in. I don’t understand why does Muji needs to package underwear while it’s t-shirts, pants and socks hang freely on the rack. Is it because underwear is intimate to one’s body? So what?  Anyone with common sense knows to wash newly purchased clothing before wearing. No normal human being would put on the underwear without washing just because it’s pre-packaged in a plastic bag.

The display board on top of the rack shows a photo of a cotton field with the following:

“Made of cotton grown on fields without any use of pesticide or chemical fertilizer for at least 3 years…brings comfort to consumers, at the same time care about the living environment of the growers…”

For such a widely popular brand to start selling organic cotton clothing is really a very good sign. Reminding consumers to care about the natural environment also worthy of praise.  We urge Muji to go just one step further.  Get rid of the unnecessary plastic packaging.

…And the microbeads facial scrub too.

Greenwash Stunt Flops – A PR Case Study

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To catch the “Green is the New Black” trend, Dove Hong Kong issued post on Facebook 2 weeks ago to kick-off it’s “Re/Up Cycle Game”.  In large font, it read “step 123 saving planet earth” and “Let’s recycle and reuse”, and below that in small font “plastic containers of all personal care products sold by Unilever Hong Kong are recyclable.”  Saving planet earth??! That’s audacious, even by the hyperbole of advertising. The poster reminds consumers to put the Dove body wash bottles into recycling bins after removing and discarding the pump (because the pump is not recyclable).  It also invites consumers to come up with innovative ideas to upcycle Dove plastic containers. The top 3 most innovative ideas may win HKD 1000 Watson’s coupon (“may”, not “will”) and 30 other participants will each receive a set of re-usable stainless steel straws. The prizes are to encourage “everyone” (apparently excluding Unilever itself) to contribute to environmental protection.

Their PR or advertising execs came up with this low-budget ploy to free-ride on concern for the environment probably thought they were pretty smart. Unfortunately this PR stunt flopped miserably. Only a handful of participants came up with ideas, such as cutting off the top to turn it into a pencil or laundry clips holder. Hundreds of others instead left comments requesting Dove provide consumers with refill packs.  Here are some examples:

“If Dove is sincere, it should be the one to be innovative.  Dove should not push the burden onto consumers and recyclers to deal with its plastic bottles. It should start selling re-fill packs, or to collect its own bottles for reuse.”

“If Dove truly cares about the environment it should take back its own bottles, wash and then re-use them…how about setting up self-help store to refill liquid soap with your own bottle? ”

I was asked why are there so few personal care brands sell refill packs in Hong Kong?  My guess? Like all things it boils down to money. The production line was set up to churn out and pack the liquid into bottles. To produce refill packs, significant reconfiguration and investment in machinery would be required. Packing and transporting them would also require reconfiguring processes. It would also require a change in consumer habits, consumers would need to take the extra step of refilling their own bottle.

Finally, there is the question of pricing, consumers would likely demand a lower price for refill pack, cutting into revenue and margins. Manufacturers know all too well that their plastic bottles and pump heads are very durable. That means for consumers that switch to buying refill packs, it would mean a loss of revenue. Therefore while some brands pay lip service to environmental protection, almost all major brands refrain from providing refill packs. It would require retooling factories, and lower revenue, with little in the way of financial upside. So business as usual continues.

However, Unilever Hong Kong may be able to learn a lesson from this PR flop. It demonstrated consumer awareness of environmental issues, and a demand for solutions. A major brand that could meet this consumer demand for refill packs may be able to seize market share from competitors and maintain customer loyalty, thereby increasing revenue and lowering marketing and advertising costs. In a rapidly changing business environment, corporations will innovate or be disrupted.

Say No to Disposable Coffee Cups

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A short while ago, I was interviewed by a reporter about Water for Free and environmental protection in general.  She suggested we meet at Interval Coffee Bar on Wellington Street. Upon arrival, I noticed that all the sit-in patrons were drinking coffee from paper cups. I then turned my attention to the counter and realised there weren’t any ceramic cup there. When the reporter showed up, I requested we change the venue.  Of course she understood my reasoning – an interview about environmentalism cannot take place at a coffee shop which only serves drinks in disposable cups. In order to let the shop owner know the reason for our departure, I specifically asked the barista if he could serve coffee in ceramic cups, to which he apologetically replied no. We walked out of Interval Coffee, walked down a flight of stairs and arrived at Holly Brown Coffee, where they serve coffee in ceramic cups.

I refuse to drink coffee served in disposable cups for a couple of reasons.  In addition to the obvious environmental reason that disposable paper cups cannot be recycled here in Hong Kong, there is a less obvious reason – paper cups have a distinct smell that affects the enjoyment of it. It might even be marginally acceptable to serve instant coffee in paper cups because no one cares about the taste and smell of it – it is just a form of caffeine. But when we are talking about gourmet coffee which emphasises the origin of the beans, how they are roasted, the skill of the barista and even the quality of the water, how can we justify serving it in paper cups, especially after all the fuss about aroma, flavor and taste? Imagine if wine were served in paper cups.

On another occasion I went to a coffee shop in Quarry Bay for a quick meal and a coffee. Since I saw the Go Cup (a campaign which encourages people to bring their own reusable cups for coffee/drinks)  sticker, I asked the barista about its popularity. He thought carefully for a while and then said: “some days there are 8-10 customers who BYOB, some days there are none. On average there are several customers who BYOB everyday.” I then asked “what is the percentage of people who BYOB versus those who don’t?”  He worked out the math and told me it was around 2%.

It’s of no use talking about environmental concerns with those who care primarily about convenience, and the status and importance that proudly carrying a Starbucks coffee conveys while walking around Central. For example, when I used to work there, a lawyer in an adjacent office whom I would occasionally bump into would always answer “busy! I’m going to get my third cup of coffee for the day” whenever he was asked “how are you doing?”

At the world barista championships, the coffee is served in ceramic cups or glasses for tasting. The paper cups are used for the judges to spit into after tasting. It seems those that really appreciate coffee will use ceramic cups. Only when drinking coffee from disposable cups is universally recognised as a sign of poor taste, like drinking wine from disposable cups, will we be able to curb the blight of these disposable cups.

 

 

Urban Farming Redefined: 100% Upcycled

 

 

Gardening or urban farming brings elements of sustainability, community, and nature education to the city and into our lives. It creates an environment for people from all walks of life to share the knowledge, skill and joy of growing their own organic produce.

At Wildroots Organic, we’ve had great results growing on rooftop farms throughout the city, and teaching urban farming courses at universities such as HKU and PolyU. There have been however a couple of aspects that have been less than satisfactory. First, almost all rooftop farms in Hong Kong are set up using newly manufactured plastic planters that will eventually end up in the landfill and polluting our environment. Second, these black plastics planters are somewhat of an eyesore, especially when compared to many urban farms and gardens we find abroad that are constructed of more natural material.

A city is place of consumption, with goods transported in but none transported out. That leaves an incredible amount of material such as pallets, crates and containers that need to be sent to the landfill. For example, over 600 pallets are sent to landfill each day. When we were selected by PolyU to build a new urban farm on campus, we set out to create a showcase for sustainability by using 100% upcycled and re-used materials.

We started by first by creating a platform made of plastic pallets to raise our planters off the cement floor in order to the reduce the heat absorbed and to create a more comfortable height for working.

Instead of buying new plastic planters, high quality crates were upcycled into planters. They were filled with soil from a local organic farm amended with locally produced compost. Most urban farms use unsustainable peat-based growing mediums or “soil”. Often marketed as “organic soil” or “black soil”, they are extracted from fragile ecosystems in Europe.

Over several weeks, wooden pallets were collected from garbage dumps and disassembled. The wood was then used to build a wood cladding to create a natural feeling surrounding, and help to reduce heat absorbed by planters and soil (high soil temperatures can negatively affect plant growth). Even the screws used to assemble the wood were collected and sorted from construction site waste. Finally, we coated the wood with a natural wood preservative that comes in re-used beer bottles.

The last step was the most satisfying, teaching both students and staff to grow their own seasonal organic herbs such as mint, parsley, basil, shiso and vegetables such as eggplant, chili and amaranth.

To learn more about Urban Farming:

Urban Farming in Hong Kong on CNN

Urban Rooftop Organic Farming: All-Win Solution for Hong Kong

Rooftop Farming

Water Dispensers: an Alternative to Bottled Water

 

At Water for Free, we have given many school talks to educate students about plastic waste pollution. But giving talks is not enough, we need to foster behavioural change. Although most schools have water dispensers, with filters that are replaced regularly, the dispensers always look old and unappealing.  In contrast, a few meters from these dispensers there are always a couple of colourful, attractive vending machines with soft drinks, water and juices displayed in nicely lit-up panels. Our conclusion was, we needed better looking and functioning water dispensers to level the playing field.

Thanks to a small donation from LUSH, we were able to prove this hypothesis by installing dispensers – that provide both warm and cold water – at a few primary schools. Pat Heung Central Primary School was one of them. We also gave educational talks to their primary 4, 5 and 6 classes. This particularly enlightened school already banned bottled water sales on campus. Notwithstanding the ban, when asked how many of them have consumed bottled water in the past week, more than one third of the students raised up their hands. It is no wonder Hong Kongers “produce” 6 million+ PET beverage bottles per day that are destined for the landfills.

When we showed the students photos of turtles eating plastic bags, and the carcasses of sea birds with their stomaches full of plastic and explained that in fact microplastic has already entered our food chain, a student gave the following ‘smart cookie’ response: “I don’t eat seafood. I only eat vegetables. Hence it’s no problem for me!”  We explain to her that she’s not immune to plastic pollution because recent studies have shown that microplastic has started to contaminate our salt and tap and bottled water (with bottled water actually containing more plastic).

Everyone was touched when we showed them part of the documentary film “Plastic China” which features a girl of their age living a life atop piles of plastic waste. At the end of our talk, we asked them what can they do to help. Many raised their hands and said “say no to bottled water”. Since over 90% of them have mobile phones, we also invited them to download Water for Free mobile app and help to add new locations to our map.

When we saw them lining up with great excitement at our newly installed water dispenser to refill their water bottles during recess, we concluded there are solutions to plastic waste pollution. The key is to not only education but enabling behavioural change by providing an attractive alternative to bottled water – thereby addressing a key shortcoming our current system. If your school or community centre is interested in our programs, please contact us at waterforfreehk@gmail.com.

Plastic’Apolcalypse

On boxing day, I went to PMQ to watch the excellent but heartbreaking documentary film “Plastic China“.  The film depicts a village in Shan Dong province which has numerous primitive plastic recycling plants processing plastic waste imported from all over the world.  The protogonists are the owner of one of these tiny factories, his employee (minority migrant worker from far away Sichuan province) and their families.  The migrant worker cannot afford to send his children to school, so they hang out on the piles of filthy plastic waste all day, go to scoop dead fish from a super polluted stream, and roast them on a fire fueled by burning plastic. The owner’s son can go to school, however the owner himself has sacrificed his health by operating the open “flame cooker” that turns the waste into plastic granules.  He feels a lump on his lower back but he dares not to go for a medical checkup for fear of what he will find.  In fact both the employer and the employee live in hell like situation.  It is said that the release of this film and the ensuing loss of face, caused the Chinese government to severely restrict the importation of plastic waste beginning in 2018.  From now on, only recycled plastic that has been turned into granular form can be imported into China. 

One day after I watched the film, the Environmental Protection Department (EPD) released the report Monitoring of Solid Waste in Hong Kong 2016 at 6 p.m. in the evening.  It turns out that the daily disposal of PET (drink) bottles at landfills in Hong Kong has increased from 136 to 158 tonnes when compared to the 2015 figure – a stunning 16% increase in one year. At this rate the amount of PET plastic entering our landfills will double in just over 4 years. No wonder the EPD chose to release the report quietly by close of business right after the Christmas holiday.  With the above mentioned China restriction coming into effect, it is expected that the disposal of PET bottles at landfills will shoot up even further.  

One day after the EPD released this report, the Guardian, in its article entitle “$180bn investment in plastic factories feeds global packaging binge” reported that:

“Fossil fuel companies are among those who have ploughed more than $180bn since 2010 into new “cracking” facilities that will produce the raw material for everyday plastics from packaging to bottles, trays and cartons. The new facilities – being built by corporations like Exxon Mobile Chemical and Shell Chemical – will help fuel a 40% rise in plastic production in the next decade…”

This reminds me of the so-called environmental friendly marketing campaign initiated by Shell Hong Kong a month or two ago which encouraged the public to use reusable cutlery/ lunch boxes/ water bottles.  While globally Shell is investing billions of US dollars to produce more plastic at a cheaper price, locally it is spending merely  millions of HK dollars to buy “green groups” and launch this greenwash campaign.  The level of hypocrisy and ridiculousness involved makes you unsure whether you should cry or laugh.

The EPD has commissioned a 18 months consultancy study on a  plastic bottles manufacturers’ responsibility policy and has said that it may adopt the bottle deposit scheme.  To ensure that government policy does not adversely affect their business interests, the beverage industry has also reacted by forming a working group (a thinly veiled lobbying group) called “Drink Without Waste” with leading retailers (e.g. Dairy Farm – the operator of 7-11, Ikea, Wellcome, etc) and a few business-friendly green groups, and hiring Deloitte to conduct a 6 months study.  In view of the grim situation for plastic waste and the bright prospects for plastic production, I opine that plastic bottles manufacturers’ responsibility means that they have to bear the full cost of collecting and recycling each and every bottle that they have manufactured.  The government has to impose a tax on virgin plastic to the extent that it will cost marginally more than recycled plastic.  This will drive demand up for recycled plastic, ensuring that every bottle is collected before it pollutes our oceans and lands for generations to come. Other methods will incur high administrative costs, encourage gaming of the system to shift the burden from producers to taxpayers, and result in inefficiencies. In a free market economy, the best and most proven solution (think cigarettes) is to tax this cancer to the planet.

 

Say No to Shark Fin Soup Loud and Clear

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I found the signing petition initiated by the WildAid on the website supporthk.org demanding Maxim, the biggest Chinese restaurant group in Hong Kong, to stop selling shark’s fin soup a little depressing.  7 years have passed since I took part in the campaign which successfully forced Citi Bank to drop its credit card promotion for card holders to enjoy shark’s fin meal at Maxim at a discounted price.  Since then, multiple green groups have tried but yet failed to force Maxim to stop serving shark’s fin soup.

Since I stop eating shark’s fin soup almost a decade ago, whenever I receive an invitation to a banquet, I always ask if there will be shark’s fin soup served.  On one occasion, I attended a banquet because the host promised me that they would make an alternative arrangement for me. However, when the stark’s fin soup was served (a large bowl of soup which was then served in 10-12 little bowls), my bowl was still there spinning around on the Lazy Susan while the waiting staff offered me a bowl of seafood soup.  After that I became very determined – if the host’s answer is “yes there will be shark’s fin soup”, I would say thank you for the kind invitation but I cannot attend.  In addition, I won’t offer the “red pocket” of any amount (i.e. cash gift which guests have to give when attending a banquet. A cash gift is also expected from those who cannot make it to the banquet, albeit a smaller amount would be considered acceptable.)

A short while ago one of my cousins got married.  She told me in advance that there would be no shark’s fin soup served, and there would be announcement about protecting sharks at the banquet.  Typhoon no. 8 hit Hong Kong on her wedding day and hence all buses and mini-vans stopped service during the whole day.  I walked in a heavy rainstorm for over 20 minutes in order to get to the train station.  While I walking in my soaking wet shoes, I thought seriously of turning around and going home.  But bearing in mind my cousin’s commitment to protect the marine eco-system I had to show up.  When the announcement of Say No to Shark’s Fin Soup was made it was followed by silence, until I started clapping and then others slowly followed.

Recently there was a media report about the on-going price for cash gift (see below).  Guests attending wedding banquet held at an ordinary Chinese restaurant are supposed to present a HKD 800 cash gift.  If the banquet is held at a 5 stars hotel, then HKD 1200 is expected.  The cartoons next to the report describes the thinking of the guest while presenting the cash gift: the cartoon cloud conversation says “why did you a pick hotel…?” (so I have to pay HKD 400 more).  Since Hong Kongers are generally tired of this ritual of Chinese banquet, I am suggesting to all of you who care about the marine ecosystem to Say No to Shark’s Fin Soup in a loud and clear way: stop going to banquet which serves shark’s fin soup, and do not present cash gift for such invitation.

Please also sign the petition initiated by Wild Aid.

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HK gov’t bans vending machines selling bottled water on gov’t premises

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Another victory in Water for Free’s SAY NO TO BOTTLED WATER campaign: Following recent announcements by the University of Hong Kong and Hong Kong Polytechnic University banning the sale of bottled water from their campuses earlier this year, the Hong Kong government decided to ban the sale of bottled water from all newly installed vending machines placed on government premises (including country parks, public parks managed by LCSD, government car parks, government offices, public transport interchange and ferry piers) after Feb 2018. For already installed machines, the government will encourages vendors to stop selling bottled water on voluntary basis and will enforce this policy when the contract comes up for renewal.

Water for Fee has been the only green campaign that has been criticising the government for placing excessive numbers of vending machines selling bottled water on government premises and installing too few water dispensers. We welcome this new policy, which hopefully will also lead to all government subsidised schools and organisations following suit in the near future. We encourage the Hong Kong government to step up it’s effort to install more water dispensers, especially in places where there currently vending machines selling bottled water.  To this day, there is not a single water dispenser installed in any of the museums, city and town halls and most of the district libraries managed by LCSD.  The MTR Corporation, which is majority owned by the government, also needs to start fulfilling its social and environmental responsibility by providing access to drinking water for riders that does not pollute the environment.

We applaude the government for taking the first step in this fight against the war on plastic pollution.

For media enquiry, please email waterforfreehk@gmail.com

Please click on below photos for the specific media interview

TV Most: 17 July 2017

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Oriental Daily 10 October 2016

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15 August 2016

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For more, please visit waterforfree.org

 

Water for Free – signing petition

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Shell Gas Stations install water dispensers

WHY IS IT IMPORTANT?

Since the cost of collecting, transporting and recycling the used plastic bottles is higher that what the recycled material is worth, 96% of the used plastic bottles in Hong Kong go straight to the landfill.   To have sufficient number of water fountains around town can greatly reduce our reliance on (or even addiction to) bottled water.  We believe that public bodies as well as sizable private corporations should bear their social responsibility and install water fountain for public use.

According to the 2015 Waste Statistics issued by the Environmental Protection Department (EPD), Hong Kong produces 136 tons of PET plastic waste daily.  This amounts to more than 5 millions plastic bottles.

PETITION LETTER:

We are so delighted to see that Shell has recently provided the community with more convenient solutions on waste reduction with its “Bring Your Own Foldable Gear” promotion .  Customers can redeem a set for spending HK$400 or above on fuels or lubricant products at any Shell station. As mentioned in the press release, “Shell is now joining hands with people in Hong Kong to fight the waste problem by making small differences in our everyday habits, by reducing consumption of single-use disposable products.”

We note that Shell stations are all over Hong Kong.  A number of these stations also have convenient stores selling a lot of single-use plastic water/ drinks bottles to customers.  We sincerely urge Shell to take one step further in fighting the plastic waste problem in Hong Kong by installing water dispensers at each and every Shell stations, so that customers who have bought the foldable bottles (or any other reusable bottles) can refill them for free.

Please click here to sign