A Problem Made Conscious: the Vital Need for New Circularity Models in Hong Kong

Written by Olivier Fribourg, Research and Content Coordinator at SVIHK

In early August, Shared Value Initiative Hong Kong (SVIHK) led 20 corporate participants on a Circular Economy field trip. Three months after launching our Growing Circular Economy Thematic Initiative, the objective of this event was simple yet ambitious: provoke the fierce reactions it requires to trigger changes among our partner companies represented that day.

It is safe to assume that all 28 participants went back home that evening with mixed feelings. We felt shocked and relatively worried about the amount of trash that we generate every day and that is buried in and above ground, knowing that a third of it will be recovered¹. We had heard the facts about Hong Kong’s waste before; however, this time it was there, in front of our eyes, all around us.

On the other hand, we were inspired by what an individual and his dream of social enterprise can achieve. In just a few years with so little initial knowledge and resources, but with great determination and dedication, it is possible to make a change. It is possible to turn materials most people perceived as worthless into beautiful pieces of furniture. Mindsets can be shifted. Value can be retrieved. Our economies can become circular.

Mountain of Waste or Land of Opportunity?

 

Our Industry Partner SUEZ had warmly invited us to the West New Territories (WENT) landfill located in the northwest district of Tuen Mun.

Hong Kong generates 12,000 tons of Municipal and Solid Waste (MSW) every day, some of the highest in Asian cities. According to EPD statistics in 2020, WENT takes in 6,400 tons daily, proof of the site’s critical importance for Hong Kong. If not recycled, the MSW makes a quick stop at one of the seven refuse transfer stations once being thrown away at our homes, and arrives at the landfills by container vessels or by road to be buried.

When you have it in front of you, the landfill might look like a mountain of waste spanning 110 hectares covered in a bright blue tarpaulin. Hong Kong hosts two of the world’s largest strategic landfills, including WENT, both of which are operated by SUEZ. The smell was not as bad as we had expected it to be. To control odor, deodorizer is sprayed on the landfill surface every day.

Hong Kong hosts two of the world’s largest strategic landfills, including WENT, both of which are operated by SUEZ

 

At the landfill, SUEZ helps conduct several circular projects. An onsite water treatment plant and a gas-to-energy plant that turns the gas emanating from decomposing waste into electricity for onsite usage and local households.

We drove to the top of the landfill and felt like a group of explorers setting foot on a new land. Standing on top of this man-made hill, we could make out the buildings of Shenzhen, despite the clouds, along with a myriad of oyster parks floating on the sea, only border with the mainland.

Compactors were moving the trash around, compressing it as much as possible, while incoming trucks continue to add to the load. We could not help but think that somewhere, in this shapeless mass, was sitting our own rubbish. At the landfill, the garbage that we often do not think about when we dispose of it in a bin becomes a much more personal issue. The realisation that this linear “take-make-dispose” system is not sustainable happens instantly.

WENT will be full in a few years


WENT is expected to be full by 2026². We consume too much. We throw away too much. Now is the moment to do something about it. Now we really know, and we shall pass the word to our family, friends, and colleagues. Linearity is not an option. Circularity is the only way. We must reduce, reuse, recycle.

Inspiration Grows on Trees 

Our second destination after the landfill was HK Timberbank, an eco-social enterprise founded in 2018 with a mission to give a second life to local timber, way too often disposed at landfills with no consideration of its potential.

The first thing that struck us when we arrived at this industrial area of Yuen Long was the delicious smell of freshly cut wood. Ricci Wong, founder of HK Timberbank, met us at the entrance of his 15,000 square feet warehouse where a dozen trees were waiting to be transformed into beautiful pieces of furniture.

“We know how to collect trees, explained Ricci. Today, arborists and government departments call us whenever they spot a dying or fallen tree.”

Ricci did not know a thing about woodwork before starting HK Timberbank, he explained while showing us around. At university, he studied architecture and digital design. Between recently cut branches and trunks, there was a large hoven resembling a submarine used to dry the wood. On the other side of the warehouse, three artists were diligently focused on their work, drilling, cutting, and polishing wood. “I usually work topless because it is 40 degrees in the warehouse during summer time, said Ricci. But for you today, I am wearing a shirt.”

“We know how to build the IFC, but we do not know how to treat a piece of wood.”
Ricci Wong, Founder of HK Timberbank

In the air-conditioned showroom where stunning tables, benches, and clocks were exposed, Ricci told us the inspiring story of how he founded his company.  In 2018, Typhoon Mangkhut broke a branch of a 400 years-old Camphor tree on Magazine Gap road, at the Peak. “The tree was around during the Ming Dynasty”, jubilated Ricci.

The branch was 14 tons heavy and 2 meters in diameter. Nobody wanted to take care of it. Ricci had only two days to decide whether he should take the branch and pursue his ambition, or let the authorities dispose of it. Where people saw a burden, Ricci saw an opportunity. It cost him HK$ 10,000 to get the branch on a truck. He never regretted it. Today, you can admire and even sit on the branch as it has been redesigned into a Camphor bench for the Yin Tin Tsai Arts Festival in Salt Field Island, in Sai Kung.

Mangkhut uprooted 30,000 tons of trees that year with 99.9% ending up at a landfill. Every year, 300 tons of wood are imported from overseas. Every year, the same amount of local timber is sent to landfills. The reason? People do not perceive local wood as valuable nor do they know how to use it.

“We know how to build the IFC but we do not know how to treat a piece of wood”, joked Ricci. The irony was unsettling. He gave us the example of the Banyan tree, so typical in Hong Kong, and its soft, juicy, and sticky wood. We throw it away because we do not know what to do with it. Once dried, though, the wood becomes very strong and resistant.

In 2020, HK Timberbank turned 330 tons of local wood into commercial materials, pieces of furniture, and outdoor art installations. People can admire HK Timberbank’s work at K11 Musea, the Jockey Club, in various cafes and stores across town, and at the government Environment Bureau’s office building.

Ricci wants to go even further: he is working with local universities to gather data about the 400 types of trees existing in our city. The goal is to certified local wood just like imported foreign timber is. Then, people and organisations will recognize Hong Kong timber’s true value and will reduce the city’s reliance on imports. HK Timberbank plans to supply companies with raw materials for the construction of buildings and boats. Ricci even aspires to build a 2-story house with the trees they collect.

Ricci’s passion and ambition were absolute catalysts for change. He believes in his ability to make a change and is driven by impact. His journey is the testimonial that bold ideas combined with courage and hard work can create value. This is the inspiration we were hoping to bring to our partner companies.

What Made this Field Trip a Success?

It took a challenge. This challenge is 180 meters high and 100 hectares wide and requires the joined effort from the civil society, businesses, and the government.

It took a group of curious individuals eager to see this challenge for themselves and the solutions addressing it.

It took solutions. Solutions are different in forms. They are different in scope. But they have a common point: they turn challenges into opportunities. This is what SVIHK is working towards with our Growing Circular Economy initiative. We are helping our partner companies identify circularity opportunities along their supply chains and leverage the power of partnerships to create circular business models. It is recognizing that a circular economy means a prosperous economy, where organisations, people and ecosystems thrive.

We want to warmly thank SUEZ for showing us the incredibly important and thought-provoking work they are doing at the WENT landfill for the government and the city of Hong Kong.

We also want to thank Ricci for opening the doors of his warehouse to us. We look forward to seeing what the future holds for him and his company.

² MONITORING OF SOLID WASTE IN HONG KONG, Waste Statistics 2019, EPD, December 20

About Olivier Fribourg

Olivier Fribourg is the Research & Content Coordinator at Shared Value Initiative Hong Kong. He graduated from McGill University in April 2021 with a Bachelor of Commerce, majoring in Managing for Sustainability.