Hong Kong has a garbage "crisis" on its hands and a group of ex-pat Canadian beachcombers who call themselves Team Canada is pitching in to help.

When the team was first assembled in 2007, its founders had to bribe volunteers with a classic Canadian beverage – beer  –and food to take part in an annual competition called the Hong Kong Cleanup. But now, there are more than 100 eager Canadians who take part in the trash pickup on the city's beaches and coastal areas.

Ecovision Asia, a local social enterprise group, organizes the six-week competition and last year more than 39,000 people collected 105,507 kg of garbage.

"Being Canadian, I have an affinity for lakes and water," said Jason Sylvester, leader of Team Canada, and a columnist with Ecovision's online publication Ecozine. The avid scuba diver was out for a boat ride in 2006 and was so frustrated by the garbage floating in Hong Kong's harbour that he decided to take action.

"Here was a chance for me to do something," said Sylvester.

mi-landfill

Hong Kong has three landfills for a population of seven million people and they are all expected to be at capacity by 2020 or earlier. (Bobby Yip/Reuters)

He helped organize Team Canada, now made up of members of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, the Canadian Consulate, the Canadian University Alumni Association and the Canadian International School of Hong Kong, and bribes are no longer necessary.

Nissa Marion, a fellow Canadian, is co-founder of the Hong Kong Cleanup and said when it started 13 years ago it was a struggle to generate interest and to get corporate sponsors and the general public on board. "Waste is never a sexy issue, it's not that attractive for people," the Ottawa native said.

But Ecovision's awareness campaigns seem to be working and now schools, companies, and more locals instead of just foreign residents are getting involved.

"Now it's a complete 180, the phone is ringing off the hook," she said.

Landfills nearing capacity

Hong Kong's seven million residents generate six million tonnes of garbage every year, and that doesn't include chemical and other forms of waste. The country is known to be bigger wasters per capita than any of its Asian neighbours.

The city has three garbage landfills but by 2020, or earlier, they are going to be at capacity. Then what?

CBC in Hong Kong

Meagan Fitzpatrick has been posted to Hong Kong to bolster CBC's coverage of a dynamic region of the world. Hong Kong is known as an international financial centre, but there is much more to it than that, and it has close connections to Canada. The city of seven million hosts nearly 300,000 Canadians, and about 500,000 people of Hong Kong descent make their home in Canada. Meagan is a senior online writer who covers national news and federal politics in CBC's Ottawa bureau. Follow her on Twitter @fitzpatrick_m

Christine Loh, second-in-command to Hong Kong's environment secretary, is frank when she describes the trash situation in Hong Kong. "We have a crisis," she said in an interview. "It is a quiet crisis because people don't see how much waste we're really producing as a city."

Loh said that in the wake of a SARS outbreak, a virus that infected 1,755 in Hong Kong a decade ago, sanitation became a top priority and the city started doing a better job moving garbage off the streets. Since the trash isn't in plain view anymore, some people may be oblivious to the growing mountains of it in the landfills on the outskirts of the city.

Food waste a big problem

Loh said the city has to get people to cut down on the amount of trash they generate, and one of the biggest sources of it is food. "Hong Kong people like to eat, and we eat a lot," she said. "We waste a lot of food – 40 per cent of what goes into our landfill today is food-related waste."

Three thousand tonnes of food are thrown away every day, she adds.

The government has launched a public awareness campaign to get people to change their habits, encouraging people to order less food in restaurants, to take home leftovers and to prepare their own meals wisely. The city is also considering imposing a disposal fee on garbage bags.

The lack of recycling is another problem in Hong Kong, Loh said. About 48 per cent of waste is recycled, which isn't bad but could be a lot better, she said. Residents have to pay a service such as Hong Kong Recycles to pick up their recyclables, or take them to a community collection depot.

The city supports some apartment buildings that have signed up for recycling schemes, and there are recycling bins along with the garbage cans throughout the city, but it's not enough, said Loh.

Even if the efforts to reduce waste are effective, there is still going to be lots of garbage that needs to be dealt with, and Loh says the city just doesn't have the proper infrastructure to handle it.

The city plans to build facilities to treat both sludge and food waste so that the almost-full landfills aren't taking everything. Then there's the plan to build what some call an incinerator, others, such as Loh, call a waste-to-energy plant, and some, according to Loh, call it "the devil." It's an ongoing source of controversy in Hong Kong.

Marion said the public's attitude and the government's are finally aligned and she's optimistic Hong Kong will make headway on the garbage crisis.

"If I'm overly optimistic, then we're in trouble," she said.

Corrections

  • This story was edited from the original to correct that Ecovision Asia is a social enterprise organization, not a non-governmental organization as originally stated.
    Feb 21, 2013 9:16 PM ET