RAW: Why is Hong Kong still dumping food into landfills?

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Haley Randell, a research assistant with Arizona State University’s Sustainable Solutions Initiative, says Hong Kong’s food waste should be filling stomachs and not land. (Photo credit: epd.gov.hk)

Next time you buy groceries buy three of anything: three carrots, three chicken breasts, three frozen pizzas, three loaves of bread, and three onions. Take those groceries home in your reusable, eco-friendly bags via a hybrid car with the “ORGANIC” sticker on the bumper. Then throw away one of each item into the trash bin: one carrot, one chicken breast, one frozen pizza, one loaf of bread, and one onion. This is what happens on a country-wide basis, even if you take steps to use all your food at home and reduce waste.

According to the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), one third of all food made for human consumption is wasted; most likely heaved into a landfill. Not only is a surprising amount being wasted but almost half of all food waste occurs before it even reaches the supermarket shelves.

Notably, the amount of food waste produced in Hong Kong has doubled in the last ten years yet the population has had a slight decline. Not only is waste production out of control, this city does not have the infrastructure to do anything with food waste but bury it in a landfill.

Landfilling food waste is ultimately the worst thing you can do with leftovers and scraps. Landfills are often viewed as benign and merely “trash tombs.” However, they actually produce one of the most potent greenhouse gases. This greenhouse gas, methane, is largely created from the decomposition of organic matter like food scraps. Not only are landfills environmental disasters, Hong Kong’s landfills will be full in the next three years. That begs the question: what should we do with all those carrots, chicken breasts, frozen pizzas, loaves of bread, and onions instead of disposing into the landfill?

There are many other avenues that food scraps can be taken to instead of being thrown into a landfill. In order to move away from its reliance on landfills, the city of Hong Kong needs to make some changes around processing food scraps.

The first and most important change is to provide people in Hong Kong with the opportunity to donate food. One outstanding example of this is an organization called Feeding Hong Kong, a food bank with the goal of redirecting food from the waste bin to people in need. Not only will more people have access to food, but those carrots and onions that are not aesthetically perfect will have a second chance at being a meal.

If the food cannot be donated, like post-consumer scraps, the next step would be to feed it to animals. This can be to your instagramming dog, adorable kittens, or pigs on a farm. Just make sure it’s safe for each animal. But if it is safe, it will get eaten.

Finally, if the food waste cannot be avoided, then it must be managed through conversion to a product or energy. One quick fix would be to retro-fit one of the three sewage treatment plants in the Hong Kong area to be able to process food scraps while more robust facilities are constructed. For example, anaerobic digestion and composting have become the go-to processes for conversion of food scraps into a new product.

In short, food waste needs to be banned from Hong Kong landfills. These types of bans have been spreading from Europe through the United States. Many US states including, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont have begun to enforce bans on large food producers like grocery stores and restaurants. The UK has decided not to implement bans but rather increase landfill taxes, I do not believe that this solution would be effective in Hong Kong due to the thriving economy of the city and its state of environmental crisis. A ban on food in landfills will create new markets for food waste reduction and management, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and feed those in need. These changes need to happen badly and need to have happened yesterday.

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Haley Randell
Masters of Sustainable Solutions Student, Arizona State University

Mrs. Randell has a history of working with local municipalities for innovative ways to divert organic waste from landfills. She has a biology background and will be working for the City of Honolulu starting in May on their Environmental Services Department.” ]