THERE IS NO ‘AWAY’
I live in a city where convenience tops the list of unspoken values. Hong Kong’s fast and frenetic pace of life has people rushing from one place to the next and generally commuting long distances to school and work. Less time is spent preparing and sitting down for family meals. Convenience eases our frantic lifestyles. Prepackaged processed food and hot and cold drinks to go are on every corner. We can order food that is brought to us in steaming Styrofoam boxes stacked high in plastic bags for easy carrying. No preparation, no dishes, no cleaning, no thinking! We can eat and drink whenever we want, wherever we want–we are free. Convenience is king. And at the end of our meal or snack we can throw what is left-away.
This throwaway culture applies to more than food though. Clothing styles change every season, and electronic gadgets are continually upgraded. Marketing has convinced us that we need more of everything, and the low prices make this possible for many. Shopping is the new religion. On weeknights and weekends Hong Kong’s markets, streets and shopping malls are filled with the bustle of people swinging myriad branded and plain carrier bags at their sides with pride and satisfaction.
But at what cost is all of this convenience and how long can we continue on this upward trajectory of endless consumption? It may be convenient to purchase a packaged sandwich and a takeaway coffee every single day, but what is the result of these daily actions, when multiplied by the more than 7 million people who live in this city? It is a mountain of plastic packets, cups and lids, a little sticky and smelly from the food and drink they contained, added to the ever-growing pile of other packaging, utensils and trash that are buried daily in Hong Kong’s over owing landfills.
What legacy are we leaving for the children of Hong Kong? The values that we choose to teach our children can either compound the problem or reduce it. Buying cheap toys for our children that break so easily, accepting plastic freebies with a small purchase, encouraging consumption of quantity over quality. With all of these actions we are teaching them that some possessions have little or no value, that there is no need to repair broken items and that creating waste is simply ok. We show them that our trash, our ‘throw-aways’, is someone else’s job to take care of. If the values that we pass on are to consume more or waste more, then we are not teaching the next generation what they need to ensure their future will be less polluted.
We can see the city and beyond through the lens of the WYNG Masters photographs, the sad reality of our wasteful world. Mandy Barker’s beautiful yet tragic swirl of trash in our oceans–plastic flowers, packaging, cigarette lighters and toys–isolated and confrontational whilst floating in their black depths.
We are all linked to the production, consumption, and disposal of our purchases. We all must take responsibility and not pretend that the problem of waste is outside of our personal sphere. Our choices have an effect on the lives of our children, of all children, and their future. If governments, companies and individuals start looking at our world as having limited precious resources that we must value and take responsibility for, a positive transformation will come about.
Looking around the city you can see encouraging changes and initiatives happening: simple things like a child refusing a plastic straw in his drink, and on a larger scale, government policies such as the city-wide levy on plastic bags. There are many people–individuals and organisations–working hard to make positive changes to these waste issues too. With commitment and importantly, awareness and education, Hong Kong’s environmental future looks will look brighter.
Hong Kong’s recycling efforts on a local level have so far been limited, but recent government commitments for infrastructure funding are a step in the right direction. is should enable more processing to happen under controlled circumstances in Hong Kong rather than see everything shipped across the border or further, to unknown destinations and work environments. After glimpsing the world of Albert Bonsfills hidden recyclers working in third world conditions, we should realise that we have a responsibility to ensure that our waste is processed without causing harm. People who are handling what we have thrown away deserve to have the proper training, equipment and facilities needed to safely deal with our rubbish and transform it into something we can use again.
We must not allow recycling to become the feel good solution for the consumer though, a justification to buy something, often single use, because it can be recycled after. We have to move away from the mentality that consumption is ok as long as we put the waste in the correct bin. We have to understand that recycling is not a simple process, and that waste can become contaminated and therefore not recyclable. The easiest solution to a lot of our waste problems is actually consuming less, not recycling more.
When we throw something away, we are really just throwing it somewhere else. Whether that place is the landfill, the recycling plant or somewhere unintended like the sea, there are impacts and consequences. If we knew where our waste ended up, would this be a catalyst for behavior change? If you knew that a child had dismantled your old phone or that your water bottle cap was just swallowed by a bird that mistook it for food, would it make you think more about the things you buy?
I believe that a unified collective behavior change is what is needed. Companies producing durable, repairable goods; better infrastructure for collecting, separating and processing waste; people choosing reusable over disposable and refusing things that are not really needed. The WYNG Masters photography challenges our perceptions of waste and uncovers some of the consequences of our consumer culture, laying bare the challenges that we must overcome. We need to place more value on our possessions, and rehome things that are still usable, rather than throwing everything, conveniently… away.