Five months ago, Hannah Chung set herself a challenge. The 30-year-old Hongkonger decided to go “zero waste” – a big lifestyle change that meant she would only buy things that weren’t packaged, or had packaging that could be recycled. She decided to document her journey on Instagram.
Zero waste, a phrase coined by US blogger Bea Johnson, is about not generating any waste that can’t be reused or recycled. Chung noticed lots of other people following suit across the US, Europe and Australia, and wondered whether it could ever work in Hong Kong, a city drowning in single, cellophane-wrapped bananas and plastic bags.
“Everything is so convenient here ... but I hope we’re not an example of where [other countries] are going,” she tells Young Post, referring to the mounds of plastic on our shores, and numerous reports of rubbish destined for recycling ending up in landfills.
Chung’s Instagram is filled with her experiments in zero waste living, from making her own toothpaste, to drawing her 1,000-plus followers’ attention to over-packaged produce in the city’s supermarkets.
This isn’t only to share her discoveries, but also keeps track of her progress during her yearlong zero waste “challenge”. In the same month one supermarket’s over-packaged, HK$168 Valentine’s Day strawberry shocked the world, living sustainably seems like a sensible reaction.
One of the main problems with recycling in Hong Kong is not knowing where that bottle or can really ends up. Rubbish-sorting bins are all over the city, but it’s not clear what happens to the collected waste. Before handing over any of her rubbish, Chung does lots of research to make sure it’s going to the right place.
Then comes the issue of cost. Plastic, especially polystyrene, is cheap and lightweight, making it ideal for many small businesses. In those cases, only a government ban would have any influence, and there would need to be a replacement material that was just as cheap and durable.
Carrying your own reusable bags and saying no to plastic ones, or buying loose fruit from the wet market, instead of those pre-packaged in the supermarket, are all easy changes to make, but Chung says zero waste living isn’t always a convenient option. “I don’t use washing up liquid,” she reveals. “I use baking soda and bars of soap now, but previously I used tea seed powder and vinegar. It worked, but it took two or three times as long.”
However, there are changes we can all make that don’t involve a full lifestyle overhaul, says Chung. Carrying a reusable water bottle and refilling at one of the city’s many drinking fountains will help curb the 2,000-tonne tidal wave of plastic Hong Kong sends to landfills every day.
Green living is a full time job. Chung works for the Green Monday group, the organisation that encourages people to have meat-free Mondays and runs the Green Common chain of shop-cafes. Chung also works part-time for the magazine and blog, Foodie.
Though she hasn’t heard any negative reactions to her challenge, Chung is wary of coming across as preachy or judgmental.
“All my friends are scared of me now!” she jokes. “But I’m not the green police. I’m not there to say you’re doing a bad thing. That’s not productive and will put people off. I don’t want to be negative, I want to inspire.”
She continues: “It’s encouraging when friends say I’ve inspired them to turn down bags, or take their own lunchbox to work.”
Chung’s challenge is a great conversation starter, but some people ask why she isn’t avoiding taxis or flying, too. “I’m not trying to be zero environmental impact, just zero waste,” she says. “Waste is easier to control as an individual, and it’s easy to reduce.”
Follow Chung’s journey on Instagram @thezerowastechallenge