Global Observer

In Hong Kong, tackling a mounting food waste problem

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HONG KONG -- Land of hardcore foodies and major food waste.

HONG KONG — Earlier this year, the local chapter of green organization Friends of the Earth displayed a large spread of food on the street.  Vegetables and packaged bread covered an area of about 50 square feet, providing a stark visual for passersby just some of the edible food thrown out by individual supermarkets daily.

The group reported in May that among the four chains of supermarkets in Hong Kong, each branch was dumping an average of 300 lb. of edible food per day, for an overall total of 29 tons per day.

The awareness campaign by Friends of the Earth has caused a stir and brought to the forefront the problem of food waste in general in Hong Kong.

The city is believed to have one of the highest numbers of restaurants per capita in the world, serving its vast number of self-identified foodies. But the city also produces an astounding amount of food waste per year.

Studies show that the amount of wasted food outdoes neighboring places like Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore, when calculated on a per capita basis, according to the local chapter of Friends of the Earth.

Government figures put the annual amount of food waste in the city at 3,200 tons, with two-thirds come from households, while the rest is attributed to commercial industries like restaurants.

Celia Fung, the environmental affairs officer at Friends of the Earth, says Hong Kong people waste so much food because garbage services are free and food is relatively cheap here. Moreover, food has always come easy: There has never been a food crisis or major disaster to change people’s attitudes about the value of food.

“You can just pay 20 or 30 dollars for a meal,” — about US$3 to $4 — “and you won’t really be concerned about what you should do about the next meal,” she said.

Right now, food waste is not separated in the trash heaps, so it all ends up in landfills. The government has plans to build a composting plant, which will be commissioned in 2015.

But it seems like the easier to tackle problem is edible food being thrown out unnecessarily. The tons of food that supermarkets dump are often wilted vegetables or packaged bread loaves that have passed their expiration date.

The campaign by Friends of the Earth has pressured supermarkets to join programs over the past few months that help unwanted food get to people in need, especially as food prices are rising rapidly. One major supermarket chain has partnered with a large food redistribution program, and others are in discussions about ways to lessen their wastage.

There have always existed small redistribution organizations that take leftover food from bountiful buffet tables at five-star hotels to the poor, as well as numerous food banks, but supermarkets were not participating in these programs until recently.

The main concern among supermarkets is potential liability that might arise if anyone gets sick from a donated food item. Fung said this is a problem best solved with legislation that would protect donors, which already exists in countries like the U.S. and Canada.

Photo: Flickr/jbloom

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Vanessa Ko

Correspondent (Hong Kong)

Vanessa Ko has written for TIME, South China Morning Post and Phnom Penh Post. She holds degrees from Northwestern University and the University of Hong Kong. She is based in Hong Kong, China. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure