Is the Science Museum Out to Sea?

“….A large centrepiece comprising plastic flotsam collected from the beach cleaning operations in the North Sea, Hawaii, the Baltic Sea and the rest of the world is displayed with the aim of arousing public awareness of plastic waste. …..Through the exhibition, visitors can gain an in-depth understanding of the chemical composition, classification and recycling processes of different plastic materials, and also learn about the harmful … Continue reading Is the Science Museum Out to Sea?

Grow Your Own Greens

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As an Urban Farming and Horticulture instructor in space deprived Hong Kong, I’m often asked about using the much hated bay windows common in many Hong Kong apartments for growing vegetables. The main considerations growing edible plants indoors are limited space, light and airflow. I set out to design a highly functional indoor growing system that would not only address these issues, but also be sustainably built and have a minimalist aesthetic.

The key factor limiting the growth of edible plants indoors is lack of sunlight. Artificial light, while very helpful, creates two issues of its own. First, it consumes electricity, thereby reducing some of the environmental benefits of growing your own vegetables. Second, they must be placed at the correct distance from the plants to be effective (in addition, the correct colour bulb must also be used).

After 18 months of research and tinkering, I came up with the idea of inverting the usual relationship between the artificial light and the plants. Instead of placing the lights over the plants, I surrounded the light with plants. Light from a bulb shines in all directions. By surrounding the bulb with plants I was able to capture and make use of a much higher percentage of the light emitted by the bulb. This maximises the number of plants that can be grown, while at the same time ensuring that the plants are at an optimal distance from the bulb.

An additional benefit of this design is that the light emitted from the bulb can help our plants grow and at the same time light up our home or office. The leaves of the plant in effect act as a living lamp shade. Continue reading “Grow Your Own Greens”

Permaculture

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SUSTAINABILITY FACTS ABOUT HONG KONG

  • Our reservoirs have a capacity of 120-150 cubic meters of water per person per year.  The UN considers regions with less than 500 cubic meters per person to be water stressed.
  • Our electricity comes primarily from unsustainable coal, natural gas and nuclear power. Converting to renewable energy is a process that will take many decades, requiring more time than we have if we hope to avoid catastrophic climate change.
  • Our landfills will be full by 2017. 40% of the garbage going to our landfill is food waste.
  • Over 95% of our food is imported, the majority coming from the mainland. 70% of mainland surface water is polluted. The area of land contaminated by heavy metals has been classified a state secret.

On the one hand we may feel overwhelmed by these facts, and the state of gridlock in Hong Kong’s political system may cause us to just throw up our hands. On the other hand, can we rely on bureaucratic governments, quarterly profit-driven corporations or ineffective NGO’s to solve these issues? Instead, can citizens band together to work on local, small scale solutions that may bring about the seeds of change?

Permaculture courses create a forum for specialists and non-specialists alike to discuss, design and most importantly build small scale solutions to ecological problems. Unlike traditional education, it is active, field-based and hands on. Working together in teams guided by an instructor, participants learn about ecology and design solutions that are modelled on natural systems and based on the following core principles:

  • Care of the earth: Provision for all life systems to continue and multiply. This is the first principle, because without a healthy earth, humans cannot flourish.
  • Care of the people: Provision for people to access those resources necessary for their existence.
  • Return of Surplus: Reinvesting surpluses back into the system to provide for the first two ethics. This includes returning waste back into the system to recycle into usefulness.

The government’s solution to our water deficit is to import water from the mainland. As economic growth on the mainland drives ever increasing demand for water, we will face greater competition for this water. The permaculture solution is to instead apply the ancient technique of rainwater harvesting. During the rainy season, water is collected and stored in tanks to be used when water is scarce. This gravity-fed system not only reduces the need for imported water but also reduces electricity consumption (4% of total electricity consumption globally is used to pump and treat water).

To address our energy and climate change issues, environmentalists promote converting to renewable energy. However, due to factors such as the high water vapour content and pollution in the air, the efficiency of solar panels in Hong Kong is quite low. With limited land, wind farms would need to be located in the ocean, an extremely expensive proposition.

Permaculture instead advocates energy conservation by designing and retrofitting buildings with passive cooling. Continue reading “Permaculture”

Where to refill your water bottle during July 1st protest?

GREEN RATING  Deep Green. Bring your own bottle.  There are 4 water dispensers along the protest route to refill your water bottle for free.  Avoid buying plastic bottled drinks.  It is no use to put the plastic bottles in the recycling bin – they still end up in the landfills.  And our landfills are filling up fast!

This past week, there have been a number of reports in the news about the government’s attempt to enlarge the three landfills in Hong Kong.  Residents in Cheong Kwan O vehemently opposed it, some of them even going on a hunger strike.  That forced the government to withdraw the controversial plan to expand the Tseung Kwan O landfill, for the time being.  But it has not given up on its plan to expand the other two landfills (one in Tun Mun and another one in Ta Kwu Ling).  Discussions will continue next week in the LegCo.

At the same time, the so-called plastic bottle recycling scheme has turned out to be a complete joke.  Due to the tightening of the import rules for recycled materials into mainland China, most of the plastic bottles collected from the recycling boxes are now being sent to the landfills.

According to the “Monitoring of Solid Waste in Hong Kong – Waste Statistics for 2011” issued by the Environmental Protection Department, in year 2011, Hong Kong produced 100 tons of PET bottle waste every day.  One empty PET bottle weighs about 50 grams.  That means everyday we throw away two million PET bottles into the landfills.  Since this is such a huge and lucrative business, the beverage companies spend generous amounts of money on advertising.  They hire famous athletes, actors and singers to show up in their advertisements. All they want is to have you, the consumer, buy more and more bottled drinks. The fact that the landfills are filling up? Since there is no law that imposes producer liability on them and it does not cost them a cent to have their bottles sent to the landfills after consumption – it is none of their business. Continue reading “Where to refill your water bottle during July 1st protest?”

A (slightly) Greener Way to Travel

 

To many middle class Hong Kong residents, travel means flying.  Since Hong Kong is an island, there are not many opportunities to take long road trips. Cheap plane tickets, and the difficulty in arranging extended vacation time explains why a lot of people in Hong Kong are obsessed with taking short trips over long weekends. If someone takes several of these long weekend trips a year, how much carbon are they emitting?

To find out, we used the WWF carbon calculator that was created specifically for Hong Kong residents. According to the calculator, my total carbon emissions for 2011 was 8.25 tonnes.  Of this amount, 2.35 tonnes was due to plane travel which consisted of one business trip to Beijing and one 2-week leisure trip to Taiwan.  I have no plans to do any air travel in 2012.  Without the 2.35 tonnes from air travel, my carbon emission of 2012 will be reduced to 5.9 tonnes, which is lower than the 6.5 ton average per person in Hong Kong.

When air travel has almost reached the status of a basic human right, you probably can come up with a hundred reasons why you are entitled to continue to do so as often as you like.  To many individuals, reducing air travel seems like an infringement on their personal freedom. Reducing air travel along with reducing meat consumption are the biggest contributions we can make on personal level to mitigate climate change. However, if flying is a “necessity” for you, here are some tips you may want to consider.

1. Avoid short vacations

Having taken not a few of these weekend trips in the past, I have come to question their value. I used to go to Taipei to soak in a hot-spring and hang out in their 24-hour bookstores.  I visited Bangkok for Thai massages, shopping for cheap but cool looking decorative household items, and eating some delicious Thai food.  Not only does each of these trips generate tons of carbon emissions, but when you consider that you spend at least 35% of your “leisure” time in transit, is it really worth it?

I am not suggesting that we should forgo air travel altogether, but can we make better use of our carbon budgets? By taking fewer longer vacations (as opposed to many shorter ones), we actually get to spend more time vacationing rather than in transit. We can give ourselves more time to get to know the local culture or even make a few local friends.

Another factor to consider is that short-haul trips are more carbon intensive per mile flown than long-haul, due to the large amounts of fuel burned during take-off and landing. The plane burns less fuel when cruising. That being said, the optimal trip from a carbon emission perspective would be short in distance but long in time. Continue reading “A (slightly) Greener Way to Travel”

30 Seconds Can Make a Difference

“We did not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, but have only borrowed it from our children”  – Native American proverb

“What gets measured gets done” – business maxim

WHAT IS THIS ABOUT?

HKEX is holding a Public Consultation that “seeks views and comments on the proposed ‘Environmental, Social and Governance Reporting Guide’ (the “ESG Guide”) for issuers [companies] listed in Hong Kong”.

WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT?

If you are reading this, you are probably already aware of the seriousness of the environmental problems facing us all. As enlightened consumers, we cannot solve these problems on our own. Government and corporations must do their part. Through the Public Consultation process, we as citizens must make our voices heard and demand that they do their part. Democracy and civic society is like a muscle, if we don’t use it, it will shrivel up. If we do not participate when given the opportunity, we cannot complain, “government only listens to business”.

According to the HKEX “a company is taken to be responsible for its impact on society and the environment. A company should operate in a sustainable manner and create long-term value for shareholders and other stakeholders by integrating sustainable practices into its operations.” We could not agree more.

WHAT IS THE HKEX PROPOSING THAT WE DISAGREE WITH?

The HKEX is proposing to make environmental reporting VOLUNTARY because they believe it is “premature” at this time to make it compulsory. However, they give no reason why it is premature other than “many issuers may not consider ESG performance and reporting a priority”. Any elementary school teacher can tell you that if you make homework voluntary, it will certainly not be a priority for the students. This is completely circular logic.

WHAT ARE WE PROPOSING?

Demand COMPULSORY reporting or at a minimum raising the level from voluntary to “obligation to comply or explain” why they are not complying with the reporting requirement.

WHAT CAN YOU DO? 

If you agree that environmental and social responsibility reporting needs to be compulsory, please copy and resend the following before 9 April 2012: Continue reading “30 Seconds Can Make a Difference”

A World Cultural Heritage Destination Near You

DESTINATION Kaiping City. Guangdong Province. PRC.

PRICE HK$ 3300 per person for 4 days/3 nights.

VACATION RATING Quite good. Kaiping Diaolou is a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site with a unique blend of Chinese and Western architecture. This is not a lie on the beach, eat Thai food and drink margaritas kind of vacation. There’s lots of walking involved. With the right tour guide, it’s a great exploration of architecture, culture and history.

GREEN RATING Quite Green. Travel by ferry (2 hours) and coach (2 hours). In Hong Kong, where we feel the need to fly somewhere for a vacation every few months, it’s great to find a worthwhile travel destination that is accessible by low carbon transportation.

ORGANIZED BY Concorde Air-Sea Services in Central (852) 2526-3391 and the non-profit organization Friends of Diaolou. See the Visitors section of the Friends of Diaolou website to arrange a tour with English-speaking experts. The fee will go toward restoration of these heritage buildings.

Note: If you have a foreign passport, you’ll need to get a PRC visa.

Vacation destinations are much more limited when you don’t fly. I try to avoid flying because the carbon emissions from a round trip, short haul flight are about equal my total carbon emissions for the whole year. One trip would make all the effort we take to reduce our carbon footprint in our daily lives essentially meaningless. Discovering this UNESCO recognized destination so close to home was a great find.

TOUR

A quality tour guide is absolutely essential to this tour. After taking this trip, I really regretted visiting other historical destinations such as Rome, Machu Picchu or Angkor Wat without a proper tour guide. A good tour guide can explain the cultural, historical, architectural and social significance of the buildings and that changes the whole experience. Without this contextual knowledge, no matter how magnificent, they are just a bunch of old buildings.

Since the particular tour we took was organized to celebrate the 100th anniversary of HKU, HKU also arranged for Selia – a university professor, HKU alumni and architectural conservationist – to narrate our site visits. Her combination of genuine enthusiasm and warmth, deep academic knowledge, and stories from her own childhood growing up in the area bring to life these magnificent old buildings. Our tour started with an outstanding lecture from her.

On her website Friends of Dialou, she explains:

The diaolou are multi-storyed defensive village houses in Kaiping, which showcase an intricate and flamboyant fusion of Chinese and Western structural and decorative elements. They reflect the role of the emigre Kaiping people in the development of the region during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The diaolou can be grouped into three categories: communal towners built by several families and used as temporary refuge, residential towers built by individual wealthy families and used as fortified residences, and watch towers (though other diaolou served as schools or storerooms).

Conflict in the Kaiping area drove the local men to migrate to the US, Canada, Australia and South East Asia in the mid 1800s. While abroad, they not only earned the necessary income, but also absorbed the knowledge and skills required to build such fantastical buildings. Facing discrimination abroad and longing to return, they sent money home to build these houses. Only the well-to-do emigres were able to return home. Many men got married, emigrated to work and never returned to see their families or the buildings that their incomes earned abroad had financed. Continue reading “A World Cultural Heritage Destination Near You”