In Hong Kong, rubbish tips are unlikely landmarks. As minibuses hurtle down neighbourhood side streets, a common cry is “Laap6 saap3 zaam6 jau5 lok6!” (垃圾站有落) – “Let me off at the rubbish depot!”
There are hundreds of these depots all over the city, part of a rubbish collection system hiding in plain sight. Unlike in Rome, where you deposit your household rubbish in large bins found on every block, or in Taipei, where everyone is expected to sort their trash and wait for the garbage truck to pass by, Hong Kong’s waste removal system is designed for ultimate convenience. Simply put your rubbish in the bin found on every floor of your high-rise building and someone will come by to collect it, pile it onto a trolley and wheel it to the nearest garage-like rubbish depot. From there, your waste is taken to the landfill by a large garbage truck.
It’s easy and effortless – maybe too easy. Each Hongkonger sends an average of 1.41 kilograms of waste to the landfill every day, according to the most recent data from the government’s Environmental Protection Department (EPD). That’s significantly more waste per person than in other Asian cities like Tokyo and Seoul – and it’s getting worse with every passing year. As a result, Hong Kong’s landfills are filling up at an alarming rate. Last year, environmental scientist Chan King-ming warned the BBC that Hong Kong will reach a “breaking point” by 2020 if it doesn’t reduce the amount of waste.
One solution proposed by the EPD: make rubbish tips destinations for more than just rubbish. Over the past few years, the department has unveiled a series of Community Green Stations that include recycling depots, educational facilities and community gathering spaces. The first one opened in Sha Tin’s Shek Mun neighbourhood in 2015, and it has since been followed by stations in Eastern District, Kwun Tong, Yuen Long and Sham Shui Po. The plan is to open a station in each of Hong Kong’s 18 districts.
The goal, says Alain Lam, the EPD’s principal environmental protection officer for waste management, is to “instill a green living culture into the community.” That means putting people in touch with their waste, much of which can be reused or recycled. Each station is operated by non-profit organisations that arrange various community activities. “Their activities are very people-focused,” says Lam. There are regular swap events for people to exchange books, clothing and other reusable items, along with educational programmes that teach people how to reduce the amount of waste they generate at home.
“Some of the participants become our ambassadors and they not only inspire their families and friends to change their mindset on recycling, but they also form volunteer teams to contribute in the day-to-day activities of the [station] to amplify the effect,” says Lam.
The programming is only part of the picture. A design-forward approach aims to make the stations attractive places to gather – more pleasant even than some of Hong Kong’s concrete-heavy parks and plazas. The Sha Tin Community Green Station won global attention for its stylishly minimalist design when it first opened. “When I got the brief, we had a very small budget, around HK$20 million,” said the project’s lead architect, Thomas Wan, who works for the government’s Architectural Services Department. I spoke with him a few months after the project was completed.
The site was tricky: a former car park wedged between an electrical substation and a petrol station in an industrial neighbourhood near the Shing Mun River. “Because we had a very limited budget, we looked into old shipping containers to use – Hong Kong has no shortage of them, we can buy them quite easily.” Wan’s challenge was to turn those shipping containers into something that didn’t evoke a New Territories junk yard. “We took them apart, cut out their faces and used other materials that are very typical of Hong Kong, like bamboo scaffolding and those collapsible steel gates you see around Sheung Wan and Wan Chai,” he said.
The station required a recycling depot and a community area, but Wan wanted the transition between them to feel seamless. “We don’t want people to see them as two separate spaces,” he said. He and his team ended up designing two courtyards. “One is grass so people can gather there, do tai chi, parties, various community stuff. The other one is hard paved because trucks have to come in, put stuff in the storerooms and do sorting.” Bamboo screens and trellises connect the two spaces, creating an indoor-outdoor environment that feels like a lush oasis in an otherwise drab industrial area. “There’s a parallel with Chinese architecture, where there are screen doors and you can open up to the garden.”
Wan said he was surprised by the amount of attention the station received after it opened. It won prizes from the Good Design Awards, World Architecture Festival and the Hong Kong Institute of Architects. “We tried to relate it to the community, to the local culture as a whole, so that people hopefully come and join the classes. And they do,” he said. “We’re quite glad.”
The Sha Tin station set the tone for the other Community Green Stations to come. The Eastern District station, which opened last year underneath the elevated Island East Corridor expressway in Shau Kei Wan, also uses a mix of old shipping containers and bamboo scaffolding to create a relaxing environment on a previously foreboding site. It too won a slew of local and international design awards.
“The site for each [station] usually comes with various constraints which often limits the development potential and design flexibility,” says Lam. But some of the best designs are those that respond to constraints. “The Eastern Community Green Station benefits from the flyover above in terms of passive cooling, thus reducing solar heat gain,” notes Lam.
There are plenty more stations to come. But are they effective? Lam says the amount of recyclables collected by each station has continued to grow with each passing year, totalling about 2,600 tonnes since 2015. Glass bottles are by far the most commonly recycled objects — 290,941 kilograms of them at the Eastern station last year alone — followed by fluorescent lamps, rechargeable batteries, used books, clothing, paper, plastic and metal. The most popular station is Eastern, which has daily activities that drew more than 182,000 people last year.
In the grand scheme, it’s just a drop in an ocean of waste. But in a city where rubbish is ubiquitous yet invisible, putting it at the centre of community interaction might not be a bad idea.