For the past few years here in Hong Kong, I’ve been conducting a daily ritual that puts me into a very select group of local residents: I collect all of my food scraps and leftovers and turn them into compost. By my estimation, this has cut my contribution to local landfills and incinerators roughly in half. This daily routine, and the products that it generates has given me considerable insight into the challenges entailed in processing waste and trying to produce a minimal impact on our environment.
There are two necessities to successfully nurse a compost: a bucket with a spigot at the bottom to drain liquid waste, and a balcony or a patio. The former is not too difficult to find via an Internet search, but the latter already rules out a large portion of our population. It is doubtful that there are more than a handful of old public housing estates with balconies in town, so that prevents close to half of the population from composting, and many newly built private estates have no balconies, even though a postage-stamp-sized balcony will do.
So why is a balcony so necessary? In a word, because of the stench. Toss your orange peels, peanut shells, potato skins and avocado seeds in the bucket, and all you need to do is stir daily and wait. No bacterial starter is necessary. There is enough fungus and bacteria floating around in our air to start the decaying process. After a few days, although it takes longer in the winter, liquid collects at the bottom, and using the spigot, I drain this nasty stuff into bottles. And it is at this stage that the need for a balcony becomes apparent. If this operation were performed indoors, the vile smell would remain for hours.
Although I know that managing food waste on a small scale is much different than managing it citywide, I have trouble understanding why our city has a system in which everyone simply dumps virtually all their trash — bottles, cans, plastic and food waste — into one bag which goes into the landfill or incinerator
Even if you have a balcony, one must take care, especially here in Hong Kong where balconies are cheek by jowl. Fortunately for me, my balcony, which is on the 19th floor has some distance from the neighboring ones.
Anyway, I try to do the daily stirring and drawing of liquid quickly to avoid disturbing the neighbors.
Because the decomposition goes through stages, if one keeps adding fresh food scraps to the bucket, the compost will have a hard time completely breaking down. So for this reason I have two buckets and keep them on two-week cycles. Once most of the liquid has drained off after a couple of weeks, I am left with a brown mucky mass and some bottles of yellow liquid. I put this semi-mature mass into wide-neck containers and prepare them for departure.
I did not mention a third necessity for composting in Hong Kong: a nearby hillside. One must have a destination for the waste. Luckily, within about 10 minutes’ walk from where I live is a trailhead leading into the mountains. So I load up my backpack with both the solid and liquid waste, weighing about seven to eight kilograms, and head up the mountain, usually with my unbelievably accommodating wife.
After about half an hour, I locate my secret spot where I have been dumping my compost for several years. Nothing grows within a meter of this spot because the liquid I pour out is still so acidic that seeds won’t grow and roots are killed. However, I imagine a time in the future after I cease this quirky routine that the soil at the spot will be so nutrient laden that plant life will spring forth as if on steroids.
If you were to try to find my secret spot, you would be hard pressed because, remarkably, after just a few hours, the smell disappears, and after a few days, the ground is level.
I should mention that I retain a couple of those bottles of fluid each month because they are actually liquid gold. I wait for another month or two for the contents to ripen and then pour it over the kale growing in pots on my balcony, which, I can attest, loves the stuff based on their luxuriant leaves.
Now, I’m not suggesting that composting is a good idea for the mass population of Hong Kong. If everyone did it, even as carefully as me, wafting odors would overwhelm many of our estates and hillsides.
Rather, I describe my management of food scraps as a kind of case study that has evolved over the years into a finely organized system. And although I know that managing food waste on a small scale is much different than managing it citywide, I have trouble understanding why our city has a system in which everyone simply dumps virtually all their trash — bottles, cans, plastic and food waste — into one bag which goes into the landfill or incinerator. Other Asian cities such as Taipei, Seoul and Tokyo have been doing an infinitely better job of handling waste for decades. Isn’t it time our leaders not only accelerate their plan to charge for rubbish bags, but also to get serious about separating all of our trash and recycling it or making it into compost?
The author is an associate professor at the Education University of Hong Kong.
HONG KONG NEWS