While the plastic pollution pandemic is truly a global issue, let’s take it one step back and focus this matter on our home turf. In such a vibrant, densely populated urban center like ours, the need for the 5 R’s (refuse, reduce, reuse, repurpose and recycle) is crucial, considering this 1,104 square mile territory is home to almost eight million people. Does it scare you that Hong Kong has already cycled through 13 landfill sites – which have since been converted to sports facilities and parks – and we only have three open plots left? If we do nothing, our landfills will be full by 2020. That’s less than two years away, folks.
Our city generates 2,000 tonnes of plastic waste daily, and according to local NGO, The Green Earth, that’s about 5.2 million plastic bottles every single day. Unable to sit back and watch things deteriorate further, Hong Kong native Eric Swinton decided it was time to do something. With the founding of V Cycle, he and his team are addressing Hong Kong’s most pressing environmental issues and helping the city’s most marginalized groups.
The V Cycle Story
Short for Virtuous Cycle, social enterprise V Cycle was formed “on the principle that environmental consciousness and human compassion are intrinsically linked.” In one of the world’s richest cities, it’s shocking to witness the familiar sight of Hong Kong’s aging cardboard collectors, hunched over loading piles of discarded packaging onto trolleys and navigating through crowded sidewalks as busy city dwellers go about their business, barely noticing them. With an estimated 2,900 collectors (mainly women over the age of 60), these severely underpaid elderly waste pickers are responsible for the majority of the recycling of the city’s vast quantities of plastics and cardboard. V Cycle is aiming to break the cycle of waste by bridging these two social issues under one initiative. “We create so much waste and we have the waste pickers collecting what we generate,” Swinton tells me at his upcycling community studio in Wan Chai. Waste pickers are working more than six hours a day to earn an average of HKD 1,500 a month, he explains, and they collect about 20% of Hong Kong’s cardboard waste; almost 200 tonnes of cardboard per year. “They are a group of workers who contribute a lot to Hong Kong’s recycling economy but are neglected and looked down upon. V Cycle and the 10 Tonne Challenge is about raising awareness about these waste pickers and finding a solution to improve their standards of living and to provide care and support to them.”
Three core tenets underpin the organization’s model: Recycling & Upcycling, Awareness & Education, Care & Support. The year-old organisation is seeking to educate Hong Kongers on the harmful nature of plastic and how to empower us to improve their toxic footprint. Believing that recycling alone can’t solve long-term problems, the program conducts seminars, beach cleanups, roadshows and talks so residents can learn about the different types of plastics and address systemic waste issues within their communities. In the meantime, V Cycle has set up a six-month campaign to reduce our city’s plastic plight.
V Cycle’s 10 Tonne Challenge
With a goal of collecting over 10 tonnes of polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE) plastic bottles by April 2019, V Cycle has invited the people of Hong Kong to participate by dropping off used but clean Type 1 plastic bottles at designated collection bins and reverse vending machines throughout the city. Typically clear in color, most PET plastic bottles are water bottles, soft drinks, fruit juice containers, or cooking oil. Classified as Type 1 PETE, polyethylene terephthalate is one of the most commonly used plastics in consumer products and it is highly recyclable. A small staff of former waste pickers are tasked with cleaning and processing, before the PET bottles are crushed and shredded into small flakes by local recycling and waste management company Lan Choi See Papers. The flakes will then be reprocessed into eco-friendly tote bags where the sewing and stitching process will be done by people with disabilities. Proceeds from the bags will circulate back to improving the lives of waste pickers, upgrading their tools for work (if they are still waste picking) and redesigning their carts for ergonomic folding and handling.
It Takes A Village…How To Get Involved
Collection points are currently scattered throughout Hong Kong island, mainly in Wan Chai and Causeway Bay with at least nine bins available in public facilities where residents can freely drop off Type 1 plastics. To reach their 10 tonne goal, V Cycle still needs 50 – 70 more bins. Expressing gratitude to charitable sponsors like VF Asia Women’s Network, petrol company Esso, and international moving service Allied Pickfords, Swinton says the outreach from local companies and the Environmental Protection Department has been encouraging. District counselors from Wan Chai are in full support of the campaign. The Mandarin Oriental, Ikea, Pure Fitness and Circle K are all taking part in installing collection bins and/or donating their Type 1 plastic to the challenge. To the public, Swinton encourages residents to change their recycling behavior: “Don’t waste anything,” he says. “Finish up your drink, give the bottle a little rinse, compress it, and toss it in one of the collection bins.”
Find the full list of V Cycle’s public collection points here.
V Cycle: 6/F, Studio 7, 85 Stone Nullah Lane, St. James’ Settlement Upcycling Centre, Wan Chai, +852 2803 1540, firstname.lastname@example.org.
All images courtesy of V Cycle