For years, we have been told to sort the plastic bottles, aluminum cans and recyclable paper from our rubbish, and place them in different recycling bins for recycling. We’d think our hard work pays off, and those materials will be recycled, but are they?
HK Recycles started out with a very basic thought: "Landfills will be full by 2019 and something must be done to divert recyclables away from landfills.” Founded in 2012, HK Recycles assists both residential and corporate customers to recycle as much of their waste as possible. As alumni of the i2i accelerator program run by SOW Asia, HK Recycles has received financial and non-financial support. We had a chat with Philippe Li, business development manager, and Johnny Lim, operation manager at HK Recycles, to know more about their startup passion and the big problem they are eager to solve.
While 80 percent of buildings in Hong Kong have source separation scheme, the overall recycling rate has dropped from 61% in 2011 to 35% in 2015. This exposes the inherent inefficiencies within the system. So what went wrong?
One reason is the improper separation and contamination of recyclables. This increases the operational cost because more time and labor is needed to, where possible, to separate and clean the collected recyclables.
"The cost of transporting and sorting recyclables can exceed what you can earn from processing and selling the recyclables. Coupled with weak demand for recyclable materials the international market, this makes it increasingly difficult to operate as a recycler in Hong Kong.” said Philippe.
Lack of knowledge about the benefits of recycling also hinders attitudinal shift towards building a habit to recycle. Philippe points out “the idea of recycling is that it allows manufacturers to substitute the use of virgin materials to recycled material. For example, by recycling a can of soda you save 95% of energy to produce the next one. Since less energy is used to produce the next soda can, it means less electricity is needed, and hence this would lower carbon emission.”
The problem of plastic is especially in a dire state. The recycling rate of plastic is at 11% in 2015, compared to 63% in 2012. Philippe and Johnny point out that “the decrease in oil prices has led to a decrease in demand for recycled plastic as the price of virgin plastic is comparable, or if not, lower than recycle plastics.” This means only a handful of location would collect and recycle plastics in Hong Kong.
In short, the lack of education, convenience of throwing away trash, improper separation, contamination of recyclables, decreased demand for recycled materials, all contributes to a lower recycling rate in Hong Kong.
HK Recycles’s solution is simple. By relying on the recycling service fee, rather than the reselling of material, they can provide an accountable recycling service ensuring all collected material collected gets recycled.
“To further ensure we maximize recycling rates for each of our customers it is vital that we host education workshop before the start of the service to explain what can or can’t be recycled in Hong Kong and the best practices for recycling. This would significantly increase the overall effectiveness of the recycling scheme” Phillippe explains. He goes further and says “it’s important to maintain connectedness with all our clients during their subscription period because this allows for a feedback to take place. I.e. whether they have been recycling correctly or how they can recycle better.”
Apart from providing education sessions and making sure all collected materials are recycled. HK Recycles also have online reporting system which tracks and measures the amount of recyclables collected throughout the servicing period. These data are then turned into quantifiable environmental metrics set up to help visualize the environmental benefits the recycling system.
As a result, HK Recycles has been able to recycle more than 80 percent of all their collected materials. The startup is currently collaborating with companies from a multitude of sectors ranging from finance, property managements, schools, cosmetic, electronic to convenience stores.
Realizing the importance of proper education on recycling, HK Recycles has turned their focus to schools, with the eagerness to start educating the young generation on how to do proper recycling. “We must build the habit of reuse, reducing and recycling at an early stage. It is for this reason that I believe we must educate Hong Kong’s future generation.” Philippe believes that there is not a better way to learn than by actually experiencing it for yourself. Hence, they began a collaborative process with an international school where students have control over the entire project. For example, to ensure the materials are properly separated, advocating others in the school to recycle, liaising with the HK Recycle team for collections. “The fact that the students can physically feel the weight of the recyclables is something that you can’t learn in textbooks. It also helps the students to better visualize the extent of our wastefulness in today’s society,” said Philippe.
But for the rest of us, what can we do to help HK Recycles and other recyclers to increase recycling rate? Philippe said it’s essential we reuse, reduce and recycle where possible. Specifically, with recycling, it’s critical to have clean and separated recyclable materials properly. For example, for plastic bottles is better to unscrew the lid and peel the labels off the bottle.
“HK Recycles will continue to focus on expanding their reach to schools, retail stores, convenience stores, offices and the F&B sector. We aim to build accountability and measurability to Hong Kong’s waste management system,” said Philippe.
“Since 1884, Hong Kong’s average annual temperature has increased by 2.7 Celsius (2015). In November 2016, we have seen sea ice reached a record low in both the Arctic and Antarctica. Global warming will become an ever more pressing issue and we should remind ourselves that recycling is not only a method of waste management but also a method to tackle global warming.”
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