The phrase “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” frequently quoted at funerals reminds us that at some point even our own bodies will eventually decompose, like almost everything else on Earth – however, there are some notable exceptions. One of these is expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam, commonly known as styrofoam, which can take thousands of years to come apart in the airless, lightless environment of a landfill – a staggeringly long time! Even when it does get exposure to the sun and wind, it never really completely decomposes. Indeed, each of us can play a role to build a comprehensive styrofoam recycling value chain in our hometown.
Andy Li, a member of the post-80s generation, initiated the Missing Link-Polyfoam Recycling Scheme (Missing Link) in 2015 with the support of the Environment and Conservation Fund. The aims of this government-funded platform run by the Hong Kong Association of Youth Development (Tsuen Wan District Branch) are to establish mature collection and downstream recycling channels for styrofoam, minimise valuable resources being discarded in landfills and promote local polystyrene recycling with educational activities in the community. Andy wants to correct the misconception about the recyclability of styrofoam, and educate the community that styrofoam – once processed and upcycled – can actually be transformed into products with great resale value.
80 tonnes of styrofoam waste disposed of at landfills daily
Under the leadership of Andy, and with the passionate support from a team of 12, including three full-time staff and nine part-time staff and volunteers, Missing Link has expanded quickly in the past six years. Today it has two styrofoam compacting machines in its more than 2,000-square-foot plant in Tsuen Wan. However, despite Andy’s tireless efforts in fighting for more resources, the daily capacity of this non-profit-making organisation is only about 800 kilograms (kg) to 1,000 kg, which is minimal as compared to the 80,000 kg of styrofoam disposed of daily at landfills throughout Hong Kong.
Before the pandemic, Missing Link mainly received styrofoam boxes from the industrial and commercial sectors, non-staple food markets, the government’s GREEN@COMMUNITY recycling network, schools and community centres. However, since the outbreak of the fifth COVID-19 wave at the start of this year, styrofoam boxes, used to bring vegetables over the border, have piled up on the streets due to the disrupted transportation between Hong Kong and Mainland China. Andy started to receive calls for help from fresh market operators like Link who want to process styrofoam boxes in a more environmentally friendly way. Taking Link as an example, it has been delivering styrofoam boxes collected from its fresh markets to Missing Link’s plant in Tsuen Wan twice a week since March.
Upcycling styrofoam into plastic pellets for export
While Missing Link has not been able to single-handedly process the dramatically increased amount of styrofoam boxes since the pandemic outbreak, Andy has referred some downstream recyclers to fresh market operators with the hope of creating additional channels to handle the overwhelming amount of styrofoam boxes to keep them out of landfills. One of these, Kingway Development HK Limited, used to process water-filled barriers and plastic helmets in addition to styrofoam boxes, has devoted more resources and increased manpower to styrofoam box recycling to help meet the surging demand from fresh market operators, including Link.
“The recycling volume in three of our plants spanning Yuen Long, Sheung Shui and Tuen Mun has significantly increased from about 1,000 kg per day before the pandemic outbreak to 6,000 kg per day today,” said Ken Fok, Director of Kingway Development. “Not only compress the styrofoam boxes, but we also upcycle them into plastic pellets that comply with international standards for export. These pellets are perfect for end-of-use manufacturing, including things like electrical accessories, injection moulding, garbage bags and composite lumber.”
Link introduced compacting machines at fresh markets
For years, recycling in Hong Kong has been a murky business, especially styrofoam recycling. “Styrofoam is lightweight, but the volume is large. Coupled with the rising logistics and recycling costs, no new operator wants to enter this industry,” Andy said with frustration. “In addition, most of the waste styrofoam is contaminated or contains impurities, hindering the recycling efficiency of styrofoam.”
“But I still have faith that every tiny step we take means a lot to the environment, and success is the sum of small efforts repeated day in and day out.”
As every small step counts, Link has stepped up its efforts in styrofoam recycling by placing compacting machines in six of its fresh markets (TKO Market, Lok Fu Market, Sau Mau Ping Market, Tin Shing Market, Wo Che Market and Tai Yuen Market), and encouraging its vegetable stall tenants to help removing the stickers on the styrofoam boxes for easier compacting the styrofoam into small solid blocks on the spot. It is expected that 60% of the styrofoam boxes produced from these markets can be recycled and therefore kept out of landfills. This not only solves the problem of finding enough storage space for the pre-processed styrofoam boxes, but it also saves on transportation costs, helping encourage more downstream recyclers to collect and upcycle the styrofoam into useful raw materials for further sale.
Dawn Chui, director of Avangard Innovative (Hong Kong) Limited, is engaged in Link’s pilot styrofoam recycling project and has provided trainings to cleaning workers at the six participating Link fresh markets since the compacting machines arrived in mid-April.
“As styrofoam boxes began piling up across Hong Kong, Link was the first and only fresh market operator willing to invest in the machinery and take up the responsibility to recycle styrofoam boxes in an environment-friendly way – I really appreciate the company’s efforts.”
Dawn hopes that more large corporations will follow in Link’s footsteps in styrofoam recycling, as this would help change the throw-away culture of the past and help build a city-wide styrofoam recycling programme to reduce negative environmental impacts and, ultimately, achieve net-zero carbon emissions.
Four important tips when recycling styrofoam:
- Only clean and well-sorted styrofoam can be recycled – clean it thoroughly before you bring it to a recycling station
- Remove tape and labels from the styrofoam boxes and make sure they are free of contaminants before recycling
- Styrofoam netting used to protect fruit can be recycled, but please remember to remove any stickers first
- Styrofoam and plastic are two completely different materials and should be put into different collection boxes