Now in its 16th year, the Hong Kong Cleanup launched in 2000 and has since picked up nearly 20 million pieces of garbage in the SAR. Co-founder of Hong Kong Cleanup Nissa Marion talks with Kate Springer ahead of Earth Day on April 22, 2016.
Nissa Marion moved to Hong Kong in 2000 to work as a model and actress. In her spare time, she started volunteering at Lisa Christensen’s Hong Kong Cleanup events and later joined full-time as a partner in 2009. Expanding year after year, the Hong Kong Cleanup happens every third Saturday in September and has branched out to include trails, country parks, and city streets too. As an extension of their green efforts, Marion and Christensen launched Ecozine in 2012 to spread the word about environmental issues in the region.
1. Trash is getting worse, but the response is getting better
On my very first cleanup way back in 2003, I thought we were going to be drinking beer, eating pizza, hanging at the beach. But when I got there, the beach was just so trashed which was so upsetting because it was Tai Long Wan and there were not even people around.
Over time, there’s been more and more trash washing up — that’s no question. But we see more people who are coming to a cleanup, and going back to the office and trying to reduce their waste at school, at home or at work all year round. So we’re seeing that attitude and interest changing. I think that comes first. And then hopefully the next step will be action and we will see less trash.
2. The trash belongs to Hongkongers
On the majority of beaches we clean, you will find that most of the trash is local. We’re not victims of someone else’s garbage, we are creating it ourselves. We, and other NGOs, have done really in-depth monitoring of the brands on the beach — the barcodes, the language on the labels — and there is no question that the trash is from Hong Kong, not from China.
The tides and typhoons are very strong, so you will see it all wash up. Sometimes it’s knee-deep on the beach. They say about 90 percent of the trash in the ocean is just sitting at the bottom so we don’t see it. When a hurricane comes through, it turns it all up and throws it onto the beach.
One of the challenges we have at every cleanup is “weirdest item found.” We have found all sizes, shapes and colors of undergarments that you can imagine. We’ve found single shoes in the thousands. We have found giant prosthetic legs, a taxi door on a beach in Lantau, a refrigerator, and we have found all kinds of bizarre stuff on beaches that were nowhere near roads or homes.
3. Plastic itself isn’t the devil
We have been using plastic for only 100 years and there’s more of it on the planet than any other manmade material. We’re producing millions more kilos every year of this durable, long-lasting material. It just doesn’t make sense to create millions of straws for single use.
The most important thing is to just refuse disposal stuff. Plastic makes up by far the majority of things we find on the beach. It’s always something disposable — takeaway containers, bags, straws. It’s so easy to just use a recyclable version of all of those things.
There are so many types of shopping bags out there that fold up, wrap up, are lightweight. I have been using the same bag for eight years now. It’s made from recycled parachute fabric. It dries fast. It washes easy. If you find a bag you really dig, then you won’t mind carrying it around. Same with water bottles and coffee mugs. If you pick one with a design you love, then you’ll want to keep using it.
4. Your recycling is actually being recycled
People think that there’s no point in recycling, because they hear that recycling points dump it all into the garbage anyway. So I want to clarify that the government-managed recycling bins in town, especially after those complaints a few years ago, are required to treat the waste appropriately. The government monitors these bins and are managing it a lot more closely than before.
But the problem is that some people don’t know how to use a recycling bin. You can contaminate an entire recycling bin by putting juice in there, or spaghetti sauce. It contaminates the whole batch, not just the one piece. So on multiple levels that sucks — you’re wasting all those recyclables, and then someone sees that they’re throwing it all away and makes an assumption that it’s being dumped. Educating yourself is part of the issue.
5. The government has stepped up, slowly
When I first came here, my impression was that the government was not interested and will do nothing. Now I’m seeing real action that’s being taken. Some would say it’s a little late in the game but at least it’s happening.
They’re piloting a waste charging scheme that will come in the next year or two. People can want to do the right thing, but they don’t always take an initiative to make changes in their lifestyle. But if you hit their pocket book then they will start thinking twice and really making changes.
But there are a lot of cities doing a lot more than Hong Kong. My favorite story is San Francisco. They set their targets in 2000 and said they wanted to be a zero waste city in 2020. Meanwhile, we are very pleased that Hong Kong is prepared to do a study, on the feasibility, of possibly setting a target. But hey, it’s a step.
It’s all part of the zero waste conversation. If you only set your target at 10 percent, that won’t be enough. But if you are more ambitious, and say zero waste in 20 years, then you will accomplish a lot more in the end.
I’m happy that trash is a hot topic, and people want to talk about garbage. That’s great. I think what really gets me going is the conversation about zero waste. Cities, big companies, individuals, and countries are setting goals to get to ZERO waste. Not just decrease waste, but create a system that sustains itself — circular economies that close the loop.
We have so many people living on top of each other in such a small geography, we don’t have anywhere to put our garbage. It will start piling up around our ankles if we don’t do anything. The landfills have been “almost full” [air quotes] for a long time. I think the latest is that in 2018 they will be full.
In the meantime, the government is scrambling to build an incinerator, but that in itself can’t accommodate all the trash in Hong Kong anyway. So… now there’s this sense of urgency. In the past it was like, trash is a problem and we should look at it sometime. But now it’s like: ‘Oh god. We need to get the waste footprint down in Hong Kong, full stop.’
There are so many new technologies coming out, but I don’t think we should pin all of our hopes on technology saving the world. Behavior change has to be there too. There are two great apps that people can use to make small changes.
One is an app called Water For Free that shows you where to find free tap water, all over the city. The other one is Waste Less, which shows the nearest recycling points in Hong Kong. So you can’t be like ‘Oh I don’t know where to recycle in my neighborhood.’ There’s really no excuse anymore.