Greeners Action, Hong Kong
From a school organization to a national environment frontliner
Interview with Angus Ho by Sonia G. Astudillo
Hong Kong has been on the news of late due to the political unrest happening in the city and most recently the COVID-19 pandemic. GAIA Asia Pacific sat down with Angus Ho, Executive Director of Greeners Action, to talk about the environment campaign in Hong Kong and how the work has evolved from school campuses to the national sphere.
Established in August 1993, Greeners Action was formed by a group of secondary students who participated in the Green Hope Programme by Friends of the Earth (HK). From Green Secondary Student Council they became Green Student Council with university students and young professionals members, and then to Greeners Action.
“After the Green Hope Programme and the students moved on to universities, we continue to do environment work,” shared Angus who was 20 years old when he joined the group. “Some of the members were much younger. We organized green camps for eight years and in 1998 made the decision to step up and organize a social movement outside the campus educational trainings.”
It was at a time when Hong Kong didn’t care about environmental protection and people were focused on economic growth. “The Green Camp gave us a lot of information and allowed us to have critical thinking and like a wake up call: to see the consequences of economic development, how human beings are cheating or playing gods to the environment, and people’s place in the economic-environment debate.”
“Prior to the camp, I didn’t know what environmental science is but I was interested in environmental protection and recycling,” said Angus. From a green camper, Angus pursued Environmental Science in the university and then took on the leadership role at Greeners Action.
What are Greeners Action’s top priorities?
Waste reduction. We educate people to have a more environment-friendly lifestyle and we focus on single-use plastics (SUP) and food waste policies.
Greeners Action is the first organization in Hong Kong to push for waste reduction through waste charging policy 11 years ago.
For a decade, we have also pushed for the solid waste charging policy. This proposed policy mandates payment for each garbage bag that you dispose of and applies to both domestic and commercial waste. With this, we encourage people to reduce their waste. We also educate the government to increase recycling programs so that we reduce the volume of waste sent to landfills. The policy is cancelled for now because the legislative councilors claimed they do not have enough time to discuss the bill before the change in council membership. But Greeners Action will continue to push for it and I have confidence the government will push the legislation with the new set of members in September.
What are Greeners Action’s ongoing campaigns?
Single-use plastics use in restaurants. We encourage people not to use straws and takeaway boxes and to bring their own cups and water bottles. We encourage people not to use SUPs when they go to takeaway shops.
Waste charging is not implemented so they don’t have an incentive to reduce their use of single-use items. But the response I’d say is 50-50. Others think it is not convenient and the shops feel it is not easy to implement. But we continue to work with restaurants, chain shops, coffee shops, and small stalls. We educate them to encourage their customers. We also do some seminars for students but we are more focused now in educating the society.
Education is important but if we keep doing it in schools, we won’t have a chance to do it in society. Students will only know the theory from the seminar but once they go out and dine in restaurants, they will still use SUPs. We try to focus on influencing the bigger world.
We also connect with celebrities and invite them to do videos, promotional campaigns, or we invite them in events. Over the years, we have worked 20 to 40 times with celebrities.
What are the organizations biggest accomplishments/achievements?
Plastics lobbying. We started 20 years ago when the government did not have plans on how to deal with plastic waste. In 2006, we successfully urged two biggest supermarkets in Hong Kong to stop using plastics bags and charge for plastics use. When the government saw this, the Plastic Shopping Bag Charging bill was signed into law in 2009. Supermarkets obey the law and people now bring their own shopping bags.
What are the challenges faced by Greeners Action and how is your work impacted by the COVID crisis?
With the COVID crisis, people care more about health issues rather than environment issues. The social unrest in Hong Kong also forced people to shift their focus from the environment because they have a lot of worry with the social and political situation. It is more difficult for us now to push for environmental policies to the general public. And with the economic situation, people are more concerned about their survival rather than their environmental impact.
What are the main environmental issues that Hong Kong or the region is facing?
I still think consumerism in Hong Kong is a very serious problem along with SUPs use. In shopping malls, we see umbrella plastics bags not just plastic cutleries. There are many examples of SUPs in Hong Kong and it is quite a challenge. Its convenience to the people is a narrative we want to change yet not many people think it should be changed. Many are unaware of SUPs ban happening in other countries in Asia. People are not so concerned about the environment and that applies to consumers and producers of products wrapped in single-use. Our challenge is how to shift that mindset and make them see the value of both economics and environment.
What are your thoughts on the waste crisis that many countries in your region are living in right now?
There are no incinerators in Hong Kong. We only have landfill. The current problem is the single-use masks. Most people use masks and replace those every two days. With 7 million people, we have as much as 6 million masks (i.e 10-15 tons) sent to the landfill everyday. We encourage people to use refillable filters.
How does your work on waste relate to social justice?
During the pandemic, we encourage the government to provide enough protection for the cleaners (waste workers and waste pickers). We also encourage people and commercial spaces to have a special container when disposing their masks.
Prior to the pandemic, we have an on-going food waste collection and donation program for 8 years now where we collect vegetables and distribute it to the elderly and underprivileged. What we are doing here is not just diverting food from the landfill but we are providing to the underprivileged.
How do you see your organization’s work evolving in the next few years?
I think in the future, people will be more aware of environmental protection. Even though I mentioned COVID and the Hong Kong situation and how that’s making it difficult to push for environmental protection, I still think that quite a lot of people are concerned with the environment and they understand the situation. I think there will be progress. The global trends will let the people know that SUP is not a solution, that it is a very big problem and we need to stop using it. The global trend will influence people in Hong Kong and even the businesses and commercial establishments will reference to and copy the good things happening globally.