Hong Kong’s recycling industry is not known for its efficiency. But when news broke last year that plastic collected for recycling was ending up in landfills instead, it was another much-needed reminder that the local recycling industry needs to be better supported.
An industry revamp is pertinent, especially if the government is to actualise its vision of “Waste Reduction, Resources Circulation, Zero Landfill”, outlined in the Waste Blueprint for Hong Kong 2035.
From the dialogues that we at GREEN Hospitality have had with our hospitality and food and drink partners, we know that businesses and solution providers see the moral obligation and business case for a better recycling industry. The problem for some NGOs or social businesses is that they fail to expand the scale of their science-based, proven solutions due to insufficient funds.
But government funding exists in plenty. The Recycling Fund was launched in 2015 with a budget of HK$1 billion (US$129 million) and a mission to enhance operational efficiency and support the sustainable development of the recycling industry.
By the time this year’s waste blueprint went to print, about HK$600 million has been approved to support recycling projects and equipment procurement, benefiting 1,000 recycling enterprises, not to mention the additional subsidies for one-off Covid-19 relief.
So what is the problem here? While lists of funded projects are accessible on the Recycling Fund’s website, there is a lack of information regarding the fund recipients, for example, the company type, legal entity or business registration number.
Whereas project descriptions are provided, timelines for targets and goals are absent. For example, in the list of approved projects under the Industry Support Programme, a simple table was created with these categories: successful applicants, project summary, approximate approved amount, type of recyclables, and target quantity processed in tonnes. The last two categories are meaningless as goal-setting metrics for proposals on developing training materials for practitioners in the recycling industry, for instance.
Without clear key performance indicators, it is difficult to see what the Recycling Fund aims to achieve under its different funding programmes.
And while fund recipients are required to submit progress reports and annual audited accounts, such progress reports are not made publicly accessible to show project outcomes. Such transparency is crucial to improving the recycling industry. Innovators and entrepreneurs need to know the gaps that need to be filled to change the system for good.
For the lengthy scrutiny that applicants are put through to justify their funding needs, government funding bodies should at least have a methodical and meticulous measurement of project assessment and outcomes as well as funding effectiveness, which should then be made publicly accessible.
But really, the time to streamline and simplify funding application processes is long overdue. When we need solution-driven people to help us innovate for a better system, funding and other in-kind support needs to be compatible with their pace of development.
Case in point: Harold Yip Man-ki, founder of pulp mill Mil Mil, first had the idea of creating a circular economy for the waste paper industry in Hong Kong back in 2009, but he was only able to realise his vision 10 years later.
To be clear, there are good initiatives by the government such as the municipal solid waste charging scheme, based on the “polluter pays” principle, and the various producer responsibility schemes. And the Environmental and Conservation Fund is supporting waste separation projects to pave the way for the waste charging scheme. But here again, more transparency on the goals, details, effectiveness and outcomes, and potential scalability of these schemes and projects is critical in engaging the public and businesses.
Take the producer responsibility scheme on plastic drink containers, for example. If the government were to oversee the operation of the rebate system, would an external auditor be engaged to ensure proper enforcement? Who would be engaged as designated recyclers and what criteria would they need to fulfil? How can small retailers with limited space provide in-store take-back and rebate redemption services?
Transparency, accountability, and the communication of it all goes a long way towards re-establishing trust in the recycling system. Only by enabling stakeholders in society and the business sector to be well-informed on what works and what does not can the government drive change in the recycling industry.
Systemic change cannot happen when stakeholders in society are ill-informed. What struck us as unconscionable, when we were researching our reports on solid waste generation in East Asia, was the lack of recent and relevant data on waste generated by the hospitality and tourism industry in Hong Kong.
Without a clear idea of the magnitude of the problem, well-intentioned efforts can be rendered futile.
There are non-governmental organisations and social businesses already doing the groundwork of measuring waste to create a baseline for further research on improving the waste management and recycling industries.
The government should take the lead in removing the hurdles for innovators and entrepreneurs, and invest its funds wisely in solution providers who are promoting knowledge exchange and developing viable solutions to accelerate sustainability efforts in Hong Kong.