A procession of garbage trucks boxed-in our van for most of the drive into the landfill. Barren heaps of gray-brown dirt contrast with thick trees and the strikingly blue bay in the distance. The center of the dump, where cranes compact industrial waste, looks like a warzone—a dusty, filthy, deafeningly far cry from the glittery sheen of Hong Kong, where tycoons and traders move money in tall glass towers.
This densely packed Chinese metropolis of 7.4 million people has a major waste problem. That’s because there are no full-scale recycling plants, and people generally aren’t educated about environmental awareness. Hong Kong, an autonomous territory that covers 427 square-miles and currently boasts the fourth highest population density of any sovereign territory or state in the world, disposes of a dramatic 15,000 tons of trash every day. That’s the equivalent of throwing out the Brooklyn Bridge each night—and still having a couple hundred tons to spare.
On the eastern shores of jam-packed, frenetic Hong Kong are miles of tranquil beachside and protected country parks. The area is a welcome oasis for day-trippers and families alike. But just over five miles away, a dump housing 4,500 tons of solid waste is swallowing the land.
Welcome to the Southeast New Territories Landfill, or SENT, one of the three operational landfills in Hong Kong. (The other two landfills are located near the border with Mainland China and on Hong Kong’s northwestern shore.) Together, the three waste sites occupy a combined 560 acres of land and store nearly all of the city’s trash. The problem is, all three are approaching maximum capacity, to the point the dumps are expected to run out of space in just a matter of years, according to Hong Kong’s government.
In 2012, the legislature granted funding to expand the three garbage sites. At the time, the government expected the landfills would fill up by 2018. The government now foresees that timeline to be, vaguely, somewhere in the 2020s. But the clock is ticking.
With SENT’s manager, who was not permitted to speak on the record due to government restrictions, as my guide, I went inside the sprawling, 250-acre dump to understand why it’s almost filled to the brim, and what happens after that.
The government’s proposed answers for dealing with Hong Kong’s garbage problem, such as building an incinerator that would emit toxic pollutants into the city’s air while burning trash, are often radically unsustainable. And while Hong Kong does recycle some materials, the city is unable to reap most of the benefits of doing so because the recyclables are sent abroad.
In Hong Kong’s landfills, waste is compacted before being covered with a layer of soil at night. The water that seeps through that decomposing waste is then treated in facilities. The government’s legislature acknowledged in a panel over a decade ago that the highly toxic substance, called leachate, runs off into the city’s groundwater.
“We understand that the current practice of disposing of food waste at landfills is neither sustainable nor environmentally desirable,” Joanna Tse, a spokesperson for the government’s Environmental Protection Department (EPD), said in a written statement provided to Motherboard. “In the future, landfill space will be more prudently used as a last resort.”
The government’s alternatives to landfills are extreme, if not unusual. A waste management facility slated for its first phase of operation by 2025 is projected to burn 3,000 tons of garbage each day using what the legislature is calling “advanced incineration.” The facility, on an outlying island built from reclaimed land, has already been widely criticized for the damage it will cause to both Hong Kong’s air quality and marine life.
“The consumer will just continue to generate waste and the government will burn it all. It’s the wrong concept,” Edwin Lau, founder and executive director of Green Earth, an active Hong Kong-based non-profit environmental lobby group, said in a phone interview. “I think the government understands the need for holistic waste management, but they need to push useful and effective policy and measures to engage the community.”
The government is considering expanding the landfills even further. But in space-hungry Hong Kong, where skyrocketing property prices are among the most expensive in the world, there are few places left to build.
“The truth is that government is also looking for land for housing development, and now garbage is competing with housing for people,” said Lau. “We should not be thinking we can seriously continue expecting to expand our landfills. This isn’t [Mainland] China, where there is lots of land.”
Much of the mounting waste problem comes down to mindset. Hong Kong has had its own government for 20 years now, though it has yet to successfully address the territory’s deep-seated environmental issues. At the grassroots, many people have little concern when it comes to the basics of waste mitigation: reduce, reuse, and recycle. As such, Hong Kong generates over 3,300 tons per day in food waste alone, and there is little regard for single-use plastics, which are clogging the city’s shores.
“The truth is that government is also looking for land for housing development, and now garbage is competing with housing for people.”
Tracey Read, the founder and CEO of Hong Kong-based charity Plastic Free Seas, told me over the phone she wonders why the government spent $2.4 billion on the waste incinerator rather than a large-scale recycling center.
“If they push all of this waste into an incinerator, there will be air pollution from everything they’re burning,” Read said. “The incinerator could create really toxic sludge.”
The obvious solution to landfills brimming with trash would be a strong recycling program. But this has proven difficult for the Hong Kong government.
While the city issues standard three-compartment recycling bins for paper, plastic, and metal in residential complexes and office buildings, most of those materials do not get recycled in Hong Kong. Because land is scarce and comes at such a premium here, securing the area for a large-scale recycling facility is expensive. (Land in Hong Kong can also be reclaimed from the sea, a costly choice the government made for the incinerator.)
“The vast majority of processed recyclables are exported to the [Chinese] Mainland and other economies and cities for further processing into recycled products,” said Tse. “Only a very small portion is recycled into products locally, such as biodiesel and wood fuel.”
Hong Kong mostly sells its waste to developing cities in Southeast Asia, according to both Lau and Read. The EPD did not elaborate on where the recyclables are sent and why, but Lau told me that there are few major operators and that to his knowledge, much of the recycling goes to Malaysia and Thailand.
On a recent tour of a garbage dump in Manila, Read claims to have seen Hong Kong’s recycled material among the trash. Mainland China only accepts pelleted plastics (plastics broken down by a machine into tiny bits) because the government is strict about the waste it imports, a hardline trash policy referred to as the Green Fence. Hong Kong does not have a pelleting machine—meaning, those plastics are moving elsewhere through Asia.
In Southwest Asia, Read said, “you had kids living and growing up in these dump areas and kids handling e-waste and sorting through recyclables. There’s no tracing of recyclables. It’s a dark area. You don’t know where things are ending up.
“We also know things being sent for recycling, including from Hong Kong, were just ending up dumped in the ocean,” she added.
“We saw grime-soaked workers smoking cigarettes between breaks, surrounded by toxic—and potentially flammable—digital detritus.”
Hong Kong’s haphazard recycling program earns few local benefits. It largely cuts off the possibility of creating value for money on recyclables. By way of example, Lau said, think of a plastic bottle. That plastic can be recycled into fibers, which can then be spun into clothing.
“There’s a chain—plastic, clothes, skilled labor, marketing—but in Hong Kong that is sacrificed for quick profit, quick return, and they avoid heavy investment,” Lau said. “Invest a little bit for a quick return. This is the business model in Hong Kong.”
The dirty part of the recycling trade, collecting and sorting the materials, is done within Hong Kong. According to Tse, roughly 2,000 private companies are engaged in recycling operations in the territory. “Most of them run a small-scale business,” Tse said, “and have a simple mode of operation.”
These private companies are mostly mom-and-pop operations in Hong Kong’s more rural areas. In 2016, local journalist Sarah Karacs revealed that these small-time recyclers, who primarily source materials from dangerous and unregulated e-waste dumpsites, were exposed to appallingly toxic conditions. “We saw grime-soaked workers smoking cigarettes between breaks, surrounded by toxic—and potentially flammable—digital detritus,” Karacs told me.
The government said it will commission a facility for recycling electronic waste and glass bottles on Hong Kong’s northwest shore later this year. The EPD did not offer any further details.
The damage from Hong Kong’s lax approach to local waste management is already evident. Indeed, it has been for some time. SENT leaked toxic runoff for years before the government addressed it. These days, many beaches look more like, well, garbage dumps than the tropical paradises they once were. And last year, marine trash reached unprecedented levels.
Plastic Free Seas has noted a major disconnect in the city when it comes to understanding the consequences of damaging the environment. Read said that many people simply do not understand that if trash ends up in the ocean, it also ends up on their plates and in their bodies. Plastic Free Seas, which has sponsored a series of beach cleanups, has found that most of the trash that washed ashore was packaging materials. The charity’s outreach and environmental awareness education efforts have reached some 25,000 students in local schools, but Read admitted that there is a long road ahead.
“There’s always locally generated rubbish,” Read said. In one cleanup of Hong Kong Island’s southern Aberdeen Harbor alone, the Plastic Free Seas recovered two truckloads of trash. “People don’t really get the connection. They don’t understand that their habits continue this problem.”
Hong Kong’s government plans to soon implement a program whereby people will be charged for getting rid of their rubbish, as a way to steer individual behavior when it comes to cutting down on excess waste. Read said she fails to see the point of such a scheme, because without recycling infrastructure people are being charged for waste that is still going to the landfills—and, essentially, just paying twice for plastics.
Lau said that because the government is so slow to tackle this issue, companies eventually must become vocal. He said that a partnership between the government and the commercial sector to more quickly handle local waste is easy. The corporate sector accelerating a solution on its own, like cutting back on the sale of single-use plastics, Lau added, is even easier.
For now, there is little evidence to indicate such partnerships and private sector waste-mitigation efforts kicking in anytime soon.
Back inside the Southeast New Territories Landfill, mobile deodorizers puff out thick clouds of white soap that slowly evaporate into the air. But like most of the government’s waste management solutions in Hong Kong, these glossy machines are a quick, temporary fix to a deep and vexing dilemma: a world-class city with nowhere left to put its own trash.
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter .