Household separation of waste is just getting started in Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China that is also a super-city with a population of 7 million people. Currently, just over 800 apartment buildings or complexes have joined the government's voluntary recycling program. The household recycling rate is about 10 to 14%, which the government hopes to take up to 26% by 2012. In apartments where common area bins have been implemented, the government says recycling is popular, and the addition of widespread street-based recycling bins in the last two years has also been well received.
Perhaps it's not surprising that Hong Kong residents have been slow to take up recycling, for while they are huge consumers (shopping is the number one past-time) they also retain a thrifty streak and a deep respect for the value of supposed waste. Interspersed in the city are collection trucks that form the unofficial "recycling" network. These privately-owned trucks, unconnected to any corporation, are where you can bring a bag full of old newspapers or a hundred kilos of used computer equipment and trade it in...for cold hard cash. There's a sliding scale - at one truck old CPUs that might have more precious metals fetch more, about US$.25 a kilo, while at the paper truck you get just $.15 per kilo. The trucks, of course, aren't sanctioned by the government - they are simply commodity trading on a tiny scale. But they point to an alternative view about resources.Most of us recycle because it makes us feel virtuous and earth friendly. We hope that the plastic we just tossed in the bin will be made into new plastic, though rationally we might understand it is just as likely to be downcycled.
The Hong Kong waste trucks have a fairly unsavory aspect - they are in most cases headed to China, where the appliances will be disassembled, possibly with little or no environmental protections for workers, possibly using child labor, so the different metals can be recouped. The paper will be burned or made into new newsprint.
But they also show that if any material we use has a monetary value, we will likely not throw that material into the dumpster. Sweden's recycling rate is high because bottles, cans and PET plastic can be redeemed for cash through the official recycling system - Hong Kong's recycling is low because similar "waste" can be traded for money through an unofficial back door system. With oil and metal prices at an all time highs, shouldn't a serious business case for materials redemption be around the corner?