Plastic Disaster on Rainy Days

The climate is definitely changing – the Hong Kong Observatory issued its first ever amber rainstorm warning in January.  If you are bringing an umbrella with some dripping water indoors – what would you do? In the 1980s, most restaurants had an umbrella rack with individual locks placed near the entrance.  As a child, I always wanted to try it out, but my parents always … Continue reading Plastic Disaster on Rainy Days

Rooftop Farming

Urban farming on rooftops has been gaining traction in cities around the world. Its rise can originally be traced to consumers increasing awareness of carbon emissions that result when our food travels hundreds, if not thousands of miles from the farm to our table. As an experienced urban farmer that grows on the rooftops of commercial buildings such as the Bank of America Tower, and … Continue reading Rooftop Farming

Meat Free Landfills

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While strolling through a Wellcome supermarket one evening, I saw the staff removing 30 or so packs of unsold meat from the fridge, and putting them in a black plastic garbage bag. I asked whether it was going to be thrown away as trash. The friendly worker nonchalantly replied “yes”, as if it was the most normal thing in the world.

These packs of unsold meat, sitting in foam trays and enclosed in plastic wrap, will be sent to the nearby landfill. There, they will decompose anaerobically, emitting a horrendous stench and methane, a greenhouse gas at least 20 times more powerful than CO2.

In 2012, research by Friends of the Earth (FoE) revealed that Hong Kong’s supermarket chains were throwing away tons of food everyday. FoE estimated that the big four supermarket chains: ParkNshop, Wellcome, China Resource and Jusco (now renamed Aeon) combined were sending 87 tonnes of food to the landfill each day. According to FoE, “In a year, the food they throw away is equivalent to the weight of two thousand double decker buses.” Of that amount, one third is bread, vegetables, fruits and even sushi that is still edible. Two thirds consists of peel and expired food which they classified as non-edible (However, as John Oliver explains in this hilarious segment, the expiration dates set are quite arbitrary and most food is still edible well past the expiration date). Continue reading “Meat Free Landfills”

Addicted to Trash

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

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

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

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Spraying Roundup herbicide on Roundup Ready crops to kill weeds

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

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

The biggest issue is what GM technology is being used in service of – propping up our current system of industrial agriculture. Industrial agriculture involves growing monocultures or miles and miles of a single crop. While maximizing efficiency, it sacrifices the resiliency of a farm in the face of pest and plant diseases by completely destroying the ecology for the purpose of growing one crop. With only a single crop, pest and diseases can spread like wildfire causing great damage. Hence, these fields require extremely potent chemical pesticides to protect them. Continue reading “GM Foods Part 2: A Tool We Can’t Turn Away From?”

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

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

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

The portrayal of DNA in popular culture unhelpfully overemphasizes its influence. DNA is not a rigid blueprint dictating our fate, but rather a library stretching beyond view, crammed with manuals describing in detail how our body works. Depending on environmental conditions, some manuals are pulled from the shelf and read while others remain untouched. Each cell carries this library within its nucleus. The function of DNA is to provide these manuals, written in a code, for directing protein creation. Proteins are multipurpose workers that do the most important tasks in the cell. Scientists can cut DNA strands and insert new, lab-made code that alters which proteins are created, thereby altering the functioning of the cell itself. Genetic engineering stripped down is simply that, cutting and pasting bits of genetic code in an effort to alter the functioning of the cell. The most difficult part is deducing if the code leads to a protein that produces the desired effect, and if so, how will it affect other cell processes. Continue reading “GM Foods Part 1: A Tool We Can’t Turn Away From?”

Soil Matters!

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

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

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

Farming in the Summer

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

Hydroponics and Property Development

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

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

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

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

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

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

Electronic Waste Recycling

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Editor’s Note:

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

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

The Electronic Recycling Programs in BC

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

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

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

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