GBA Lifestyle News
By Kate Springer | October 8th, 2015

Hong Kong has long been struggling to keep up with the 1.36kg of waste per capita produced each day and, without adequate facilities, some our trash, agricultural waste and pollution has been finding its way into the ocean. Co-founder of the Ocean Recovery Alliance Doug Woodring explains what’s happening under water and why it matters.

A little background

Doug Woodring has been in Hong Kong for more than 20 years and started the Ocean Recovery Alliance five years ago. His first job out of university was working with a huge fishing company in Japan, and he was the first foreigner o board. That’s where he learned the dark reality about the immense amount of unregulated waste that is being pulled out of the ocean at scale. With Ocean Recovery Alliance, he is aiming to stop the flow by creating apps like Global Alert, where you can report trash hot spots anywhere in the world.

5 things you should know, according to Doug

1. Hong Kong has a growing waste issue

We have to tighten up the system – whether that means more landfills or an incinerator. But right now, Hong Kong has no quality advanced technology for recycling, and there is no scale that would allow us to manage our materials and sort our waste in a proper way. For way too long it was too easy to bury it or to send it to China, but now China has put up barriers and essentially said, “We don’t want your dirty garbage; you have to process it yourself.” And that’s great in a way, because it puts pressure on us to invest in jobs, technology and ways to manage the material.

Hong Kong has no quality advanced technology for recycling

2. Ocean pollution comes full circle

People don’t realize that plastic can get into the food chain. It’s not just the plastic itself that you bite into, but it’s the toxins carried by the plastic, like agricultural waste, fire retardants and pesticides. Plastic makes its way up the food chain, which a lot of people don’t realize. As we over-fish and over-pollute, we are damaging a huge aspect of what we will need for food and protein in the future.

The Ocean Recovery Alliance's "Grate Art" project
The Ocean Recovery Alliance is launching a “Grate Art” project that aims to thwart dumping trash in city grates by distributing beautifully designed plaques on grounds near drains.

3. Charging for waste could help

The only ways to improve the environment is through pain or reward. Pain is a fine, a tax, a discouragement. Rewards could be refunds, coupons, tax deductions, or some other motivator. But unless you have one, you aren’t going to move the dial at all. Right now there is no charge on waste, so there is no motivation for people to do anything about it. It’s quite difficult to implement, though, due to all the high rises and families and businesses living in one place. It’s hard to count and monitor who does what to hold people accountable.

The only ways to improve the environment is through pain or reward.

4. Hong Kong could take a note from Taiwan

Taiwan is the best in the region – they were the first country in the world to put a law into effect for “extended producer responsibility,” which is essentially a small fee for anything plastic that a company sells. So that means a restaurant using a plastic straw would have to pay a little something back to the government for cleaning and processing. That puts money into the system to allow for recovery, sorting, gathering and recycling. I mean, when you look at McDonald’s, which puts plastic bags on cups for no reason – that is blatant waste that’s totally unnecessary. That is the kind of stuff that would go away really quickly if businesses were responsible for the products they put out into the world.

Doug Woodring Ocean Recovery Alliance
Doug Woodring at an outreach event

5. We can’t see most of the ocean’s problems

Trash moves around and a lot of it sinks, so unfortunately there’s a heck of a lot under the water that we don’t even know about simply because we are not down there checking. But about 60-70 percent of plastic sinks. It is kind of a tip-of-the-iceberg theory type of thing.  The impact is very big on the sea creatures and birds, and the problem in the ocean is there is no body count, so when things die we don’t know about it because they sink or get eaten.

It is kind of a tip-of-the-iceberg theory type of thing

And looking towards the future?

It’s not an ocean problem – it’s a city and a people problem. If the city can’t manage waste and there’s no incentive for people to reduce their trash, then there will be spillover that is not captured properly. I hear a lot of people complaining about how there’s no recycling or that they see a cleaning woman dumping the garbage all together, but not a lot of people are doing anything. People have to get their head around the fact that garbage is valuable, and garbage is a resource.