On 29-31 July, a Hong Kong delegation visited Seoul to learn from the city’s advanced food waste policies and practices. Through the ICLEI-organized tour, Hong Kong city officials were presented with innovative technological solutions and people-centered approaches.

Hong Kong: a small land with a mounting problem

Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated places in the world, with over 7.4 million people residing in just 1,104 km2. Every square meter counts, and wasting space with landfills is simply not sustainable.

Yet, the city generates and sends to landfills up to 3,500 tons of food waste every day. Only one-third comes from commercial and industrial sources, such as restaurants, wet markets, and processing industries; the remainder is attributed to households.

Estimations suggest that about 50 percent of Hong Kong food waste could be recycled, but so far the law does not require food waste separation for collection and recycling. Adding to this mounting problem, the disposal of biodegradable waste into landfills produces odor nuisance, leachates and landfill gases that require further mitigation measures to deal with, while wasting useful organic contents.

Realizing the urgency of the situation, Hong Kong set a goal to separately collect food waste from commercial and industrial entities by 2026, and citywide by 2030. The city government has also developed its first organic resource recovery center O ⋅ Park1, which uses anaerobic digestion to convert biodegradable material into biogas for electricity generation, handling 200 tons of food waste per day. A second facility is under construction with a designed capacity of 300 tons per day.

In addition, Hong Kong is actively exploring alternative solutions from other cities’ experiences, for example through the 3-day study tour in Seoul organized by ICLEI East Asia.

Dealing with Food Waste — the Seoulite way

South Korea’s capital launched its first volume-based waste fee system in 1995. Gradually, Seoul took additional steps by implementing dedicated collection of recyclables, banning food waste in metropolitan landfills, and aligning with the national government’s law prohibiting food wastewater’s release into the ocean. 

The Hong Kong delegation was introduced to Seoul’s 2013 “pay-as-you-waste” system. Through this recycling scheme, people discharge food waste into containers with payment chips or weighting bins that charge residents through an ID card. The waste is then sent to treatment plants and converted into animal feed, compost, and bioenergy. The scheme, which charges individual household fees, has led to a 10 percent decrease in the daily amount of food waste, from over 3,000 tons in 2013 to 2,751 tons in 2018. 

Hong Kong is also subject to mounting space pressure, and ICLEI’s study tour to the South Korean capital may have given the island’s delegation food for thought. Indeed, half of Seul’s food waste is processed in neighbouring regions to avoid sacrificing excessive land with new, large treatment plants. To reduce its external dependence, Seoul is employing a twofold approach. On the one hand, the city is expanding its existing five treatment facilities, augmenting its treatment capacity without eating precious ground. On the other hand, it is gradually introducing on-site food waste treatment systems that, through dehydration or microorganism-based fermentation, should reduce the volume of transported food waste by up to 85 percent. Pilot projects are already on the way in schools and cafeterias, with the goal of being reproduced on a larger scale to offer long-term, sustainable alternatives.

Key Takeaways: citizen engagement and context are crucial

While the Hong Kong delegation visited Seul’s innovative treatment facilities and learned about its food waste management, what truly fascinated them was the citizens’ diligent compliance with food waste separation.

Although people need time to change their mindsets, Seoul’s experience suggests that public behaviour can be steered towards more sustainable practices through coherent policy design and careful implementation. For instance, the pay-as-you-waste fee system initially priced each waste bag as low as 10KRW (0.1USD) to prevent public objections and incentivize citizens’ compliance. Only once people got accustomed to the system, did the government gradually adjust fees to meet management costs.

A second key takeaway for the Hong Kong delegation was the tailoring of ‘external’ initiatives to the local context. According to Korean legislator Han Jeong Ae, Hong Kong should tailor its food waste policies according to residents food cultures and eating habits, which might require some technological adjustments. For example, in Korean cuisine, there are numerous fermented foods and beverages which enhance the production of biogas for energy conversion.

Hong Kong and Seoul are among East Asia’s leaders in active exploration of ways to reduce food waste. Whereas technology can undoubtedly enhance food waste management systems and recycling rates, cities should always embrace a more circular approach to minimize unusable and excessive food and to consciously reintegrate the eventual waste into the ecosystem.

This piece was originally published by ICLEI’s East Asia Secretariat.