Circular economy

How Hong Kong airport fights waste for greener environment

Jonathan Chong for Hong Kong Economic Journal Hong Kong | Updated on November 30, 2018

One of the wealthiest places in the world, Hong Kong also has a reputation of being the most wasteful, with a massive waste footprint and landfills that are almost full.

The air travel industry is a big part of the problem — Hong Kong has one of the busiest airports on the planet, with an average of 200,000 passengers and 1,115 flights recorded every day in this year’s Lunar New Year festive period. The International Air Transport Association estimates that in 2016, airline passengers worldwide generated 5.2m tonnes of waste, most of which ended up in landfills or was incinerated. This figure is set to double over the next 15 years.

Now, the Airport Authority Hong Kong (AAHK) is on a mission to make Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA) the world’s greenest. 

In 2013, the Hong Kong government mapped out a waste management blueprint for the years until 2022. Hot on its heels, the AAHK commissioned a study on its own waste management practices and drew up a long-term strategy. It has set a target to reduce, reuse or recycle 50 percent of the waste generated at the airport by 2021, from vehicle tyres to cooking oil.

The AAHK found that aircraft cabins churned out the most waste, from toilet waste to half-eaten food trays, followed by the airport’s food industry, then rubbish and recycling bins. Combined, these three sources accounted for more than 80 percent of waste produced at HKIA.

The study identified three key areas to address as well as measures to be implemented by 2021. First, waste production must be reduced at its source. Second, the management of waste contractors has to be optimised, to strengthen the collection and sorting of recyclables. Finally, educational programmes have to be provided to airport customers, restaurateurs, retailers and contractors, to bring about a change in attitude towards waste reduction and separation. A passenger awareness programme has been developed to promote AAHK’s waste reduction and recycling efforts to the public.

Mike Kilburn, acting general manager for sustainability at AAHK, said, “The Airport Authority has been collecting food waste for recycling since 2003. In 2011, the scope of collection expanded to cover 17 airport business partners including hotels and airline caterers, and 29 food and beverage tenants and lounges within the terminal buildings.”

So far, the results have been impressive: in 2016/17, 2,130 tonnes of food waste were converted into fishmeal, and 24 tonnes of collected food waste transformed into compost for greening airport flowerbeds. As part of AAHK’s social outreach programme, recuperated food deemed safe for human consumption is boxed up and sent to Bo Charity Foundation's Food Angel initiative.

AAHK has also taken a second look at airport passenger buses and saloon cars and plans to gradually replace its entire vehicle fleet, with electric or fuel-efficient hybrid vehicles. At present, 84 percent of the airport’s airside saloon cars run on electricity, Kilburn noted that by end of 2017 they will all be electric.

Despite AAHK having made great advances in making Hong Kong airport the greenest of all, there have still been a few stepbacks. According to the Hong Kong Airport Sustainability Report 2015/16, its overall recycling rate fell from 12.2 percent in 2014/15 to 7.5 percent in 2015/16, which could be due to the lower market value of recyclables or recycling procedures not being fully executed by airport employees or customers.

In March 2017, Hong Kong government announced that municipal solid waste (MSW) charging scheme would be launched in the second half of 2019. After collecting opinions from relevant industries and members of the society, details for implementation are being finalised.

Given that the charging scheme will have a large impact on businesses, AAHK is conducting an MSW charging pilot scheme to identify additional opportunities to improve recycling across the airport. Kilburn added, “The authority is determining the most cost-effective and efficient way to roll out such a scheme.”

There is an apparent flight of change cruising over Hong Kong, with HKIA clearly in the pilot seat.  

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Published on October 27, 2017
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