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How effective are recycling programmes in East Asia? We crunched the numbers to compare Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Mainland China’s records on waste and recycling. The results show that Taiwan is ahead of the others, and has valuable lessons to share. 

Around the world waste is piling up. The rise of single-use packaging and our ‘throw-away culture’ is having a massive impact on our ability to deal with waste. Last year, over 2 billion tons of waste was generated globally. An estimated 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions are from waste in landfills and open dumps. 

The World Bank states that there are large disparities between high-income and low-income countries when it comes to waste. Waste generation is much greater in high-income countries as high-income means high-consumption and therefore high-waste. While waste collection and some recycling infrastructure is almost guaranteed in upper-middle-income and high-income countries, in low-income countries less than half of urban waste is collected. Likewise, recycling rates vary significantly in high-income and low-income countries. As countries develop and urbanise, this waste crisis is only going to get worse; the World Bank estimates that in the next 30 years, global waste generation will increase by 70%.

Recycling is a key component to stem the tide and eventually achieve zero waste. Further, it is a useful indicator of a country’s attitude to the overall waste issue. As such, it is telling that many high-income, high-consumption nations continue to export their waste abroad. This ‘out of sight out of mind’ approach was challenged at the end of 2017 when China banned the import of waste under the ‘National Sword’ policy. Hong Kong and to a lesser extent Singapore, both high-income states in East Asia, have struggled with this policy as a collapsed global export market has left their poor domestic recycling markets exposed. On the other hand, Taiwan is an importer of recycling waste and was affected by a flood of waste entering the country following China’s ban, with imported plastic and paper more than doubling from 2017 to 2018. 

East Asia Pacific produces 23% of the world’s waste, the most of any region. Within East Asia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and China generate a combined 223 million tons annually. Of these four countries in East Asia, Taiwan is seen as a world leader in recycling and zero waste with high recycling rates and low waste disposal for their income level. Taiwan’s success with recycling is proof that the rest of East Asia can achieve a low-waste economy through effective policy, infrastructure and education.

You might also like: Asia’s Battle Against Plastic Waste 

asia recycling figures

From the data above on recycling in the various countries in East Asia, China has the lowest per person waste generation and disposal rates, due to a lower income per capita than the others. China doesn’t provide official statistics for recycling but it has a goal of achieving 35% waste recovery in major cities by 2020. Taiwan has similar disposal rates to China and a much more advanced recycling industry. It has the second best recycling rate, closely following Singapore. Hong Kong lags behind the other areas with high-generation, low overall recovery and very low local recycling capacity. 

Taiwan is a recent success story. As recently as 1993, it was called ‘Garbage Island’ as only 70% of waste was collected, while the rest was openly dumped or burnt in pits. Back then ‘Garbage Island’ had a paltry 5% recycling rate, but for the last 10 years, has boasted a recycling rate of above 50%. Similarly, daily disposal rates have improved from 1.14 kg per person in 1998 to 0.4 kg per person in 2013.

The remarkable turnaround was sparked by activists’ protesting to compel the government to stop using harmful incinerators to deal with waste and to instead adopt a zero-waste framework. The drive towards zero waste was achieved in the late 1990s and early 2000s with the implementation of a range of regulations. These policies were centred around a ‘4-in-1’ system of extended producer responsibility (EPR) that holds all stakeholders in the waste lifecycle responsible, from manufacturers to consumers. Additional measures, such as a municipal solid waste (MSW) charging scheme, were implemented to shift consumer behaviour and raise money for recycling infrastructure, collection services and education. In fact, education was a crucial component of the overall framework as communities have been a big part of Taiwan’s success. Recycling has become a ‘ritual’ with rubbish and recycling trucks playing classical music to alert residents and volunteers helping residents sort their waste correctly. 

Hong Kong and Singapore on the other hand have sky-high daily disposal rates. Both space-constrained cities face waste crises that are growing out of control. Hong Kong’s landfills are effectively full. Extension of an existing landfill provides capacity until 2030 and the city’s first incinerator is due to be in operation by 2024. Hong Kong only recycles 30% of waste and, due to the limited recycling infrastructure in the city, almost all of this is sent overseas to be processed. 

Singapore incinerates almost all waste that is not recovered for recycling which significantly reduces the volume sent to landfill. Despite this, the city’s only landfill will be full by 2035 if current levels of dumping continue. There is hope that the Singaporean government is taking the issue seriously as 2019 was declared a ‘year of zero waste’ to help kick start the waste reduction movement. One positive is that industrial and construction waste recycling is well established in Singapore which results in a high overall recycling rate of 59%, of which 34% is exported. Household recycling is lacking at 17% and is an obvious place for improvement.

Each city has detailed plans to respond to the crisis. Hong Kong’s 2013 Blueprint set ambitious goals to reduce waste by 40% from 2011 levels and increase recycling to 55% by 2022. Key to this blueprint was a focus on certain waste streams and an MSW charging scheme, where users pay to dispose of waste. The Environment Bureau described the MSW charging as ‘one of most forceful tools in waste reduction’. The scheme was first proposed over 15 years ago, in 2004, and after many delays, it was recently scrapped, serving a massive blow to environmental lobbyists. Measures such as education and a focus on certain waste streams, such as waste electronic and electric equipment (WEEE) have led to some improvements, however overall, ambitious goals and blueprints to reduce waste in Hong Kong have so far failed. 

Singapore’s Masterplan sets three goals, namely to reduce waste disposed of in landfills by 30% by 2030, increase the overall recycling rate to 70% and extend the lifespan of the Semakau landfill beyond 2035. Much like Hong Kong’s blueprint, the masterplan focuses on food waste, WEEE, and packaging. In fact, Hong Kong and Singapore have similar extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes. Hong Kong’s, called a producer responsibility scheme (PRS), covers plastic bags, WEEE and glass bottles. Singapore’s is still being implemented but will likely cover WEEE by 2021 and plastic packaging and other waste streams in the following years. Both EPRs could be expanded to include more waste and be more holistic like the Taiwanese ‘4-in-1’ system. 

China is the world’s largest waste generator, and waste levels are rising fast as incomes continue to rise. By 2030 it is estimated that the country will produce double the municipal solid waste of the US, the second-largest producer. China’s waste generation per capita is low, due to its status as a lower-middle-income country. Despite this low waste generation, China is still faced with a growing waste problem. Major rivers in China are a significant source of ocean plastic, and landfills are filling up much quicker than expected

Landfills are major waste disposal methods in China with 56% of waste ending up in them. Incineration is growing and is currently responsible for 39% of disposal. Official recycling rates are not published in China so little is known about how much waste is recycled. Major cities in China are taking the lead in recycling with an initiative to increase recycling to 35% in 46 urban centres. In addition, there are 10 cities that are yet to be confirmed, to pilot China’s ‘zero waste cities’ programme. Shanghai is the first pilot city and now has strict rules on waste sorting and disposal in the hopes of improving its recycling rate which was as low as 10% in 2017. 

Taiwan is the clear leader of East Asia when it comes to zero waste and recycling, although the other three countries’ governments are starting to prioritise it. Taiwan’s turnaround from ‘Garbage Island’ shows it can be done. Policies to ensure that all stakeholders work together and are held accountable, investment in collection and recycling facilities, as well as community engagement appear to be crucial to Taiwan’s success. While conditions vary and different solutions may be required at each location, the Taiwanese model is a useful and proven starting point.

Featured image: Flickr

Policy makers and scientists from China, the US and other countries recently gathered to discuss China’s plans to create a unified national park system. Supposedly taking inspiration from Yellowstone Park in the US, the system aims to limit development and protect ecosystems. China plans to complete 10 national parks by the end of 2020. 

The conservation efforts come after a development spike in the Xining area in central China that is characterised by an increasing number of skyscrapers, highways and high-speed railways. The region, called the “rooftop of the world” and ringed by the world’s tallest mountain ranges, is now a pivotal part of China’s latest modernisation plan.

This time, however, China aims to limit the region’s growth to incorporate its own version of the US’s proudest legacy: a national park system.

Zhu Chunquan, the China representative of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, a Swiss-based scientific group, noted that China’s economy has spiked over the past 40 years, however priorities are now encompassing conservation infrastructure to protect the country’s key natural resources. “It’s quite urgent to identify the places, the ecosystems and other natural features to protect,” Zhu said.

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Chinese Version of Yellowstone

China plans to build its own Yellowstone on the Tibetan plateau. Zhu, who is also a member of the advisory committee providing input on the development of China’s budding national park system, says the plan is likely to be revealed later this year. 

Chinese officials visited US national parks, including Yellowstone and Yosemite, and sought input from numerous organisations like the Paulson Institute in Chicago.

The plan to generate a unified park system represents, “a new and serious effort to safeguard China’s biodiversity and natural heritage,” Duke University ecologist Stuart Pimm says. 

The Pilot Park

The first park will be situated in Qinghai province, a region in western China close to Tibet, and will be named the Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve. The region is home to approximately 128 000 people who live in or around the planned park’s boundaries, including many Tibetans.

The region is also home to native and endangered species like the snow leopard and Chinese mountain cat, and encompasses the headwaters of three of Asia’s great waterways, namely the Yangtze, Yellow and Mekong rivers.

Drawing Inspiration From Yellowstone

Created in 1872 and recognised as the world’s first national park, the US government forced Native Americans who lived in the area to resettle outside the park boundaries with the aim of obliging to 19th-century regulations of wilderness protection. Other countries who establish park systems today must consider the livelihoods of local populations.

In the past, China’s resettlement programs, which cleared land for large infrastructure projects like the Three Gorge Dam, left many farmers in new homes without adequate agricultural fields or access to other livelihoods.

However, in the case of developing national parks, the government is distributing conservation-related jobs to people living in or around the Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve. Locals can therefore stay and work on their land through the “One Family, One Ranger” program, which hires one person per family for 1 800 yuan (US$259) a month to collect trash, monitor for poaching and other duties.

Biodiversity and Landscape Usage

A recent “national ecosystems assessment” examined China’s land changes between 2000 and 2010 with the help of 20 000 satellite images and 100 000 field surveys. Ouyang Zhiyun, deputy director at the Chinese Academy of Science’s Research Centre for Eco-Environmental Sciences and leader of the assessment, is currently referencing the work to map priority areas for conservation and advise park planners accordingly, with a focus on endangered species’ habitats that are endemic to China.

China’s 13th Five Year Plan

The environment and sustainability considerations have been previously stressed in China’s 12th Five Year Plan. Improvements, however, in efforts to achieve a greener society and economy is further expressed in the 13th Five Year Plan, that includes adjustments to previous ambitions, and added targets and goals to accelerate green goals.

One of China’s major objectives in the 13th Five Year Plan is to ‘achieve an overall improvement in the quality of the environment and ecosystems’. Specifically, this objective outlines an ambition to transform current modes of production and ways of life to become more eco-friendly. In order to achieve this, China plans to improve energy efficiency, control land used for construction, reduce energy and water consumption and reduce emissions of major pollutants.

Chapter 43 aims to control ‘the amount of additional land designated for construction projects and bring under effective control the disorderly expansion of new cities, new districts and development areas’.

Chapter 45 outlines a slew of biodiversity conservation projects, including nature reserves and protection of ecosystems, species, genes and landscape diversity. This will be achieved with the help of background surveys and evaluations and improvements to biodiversity observation systems. The government says, “We will ensure the proper planning and development of facilities and parks for the biological resources protection and promote the development of gene banks and artificial breeding centers for wild fauna and flora species.”

The plan also includes a circular development target, with the hopes of upgrading 75% of national industrial parks and 50% of provincial-level industrial parks.

Furthermore, in regards to traditional culture and natural heritage, the plan outlines a target of building national cultural parks and to improve facilities for their protection and utilisation.

The national park system falls in line with the goals of the 13th Five Year Plan, and demonstrates the sincerity and seriousness of China achieving the outlined environmental objectives.

Plastic Free Seas, a Hong Kong-based environmental charity, is calling for an investigation into the source of the black granule microplastics which have been washing up onto the beach in Discovery Bay since late July. A cleanup operation resulted in the recovery of over two tons of the black crumb-like material, as well as other debris. 

The NGO has expressed their frustrations with the lack of a coordinated emergency response and investigation by the Environmental Protection Department (EPD) and other departments in Hong Kong. It says that after a 2012 incident in which 150 tons of plastic pellets fell into the ocean from a container ship, as well as a palm oil spill in 2017, this need is ever more important. 

While Clean Shorelines, an Interdepartmental Working Group, was set up after the pellet spill, the group focuses on cleanup rather than investigation, penalties and incident prevention.

From an internal investigation, Plastic Free Seas found that the microplastics material appears to be rubber infill used in AstroTurf, similar to that used on the North Plaza pitch in Discovery Bay. Infill from the pitch has been seen in and around storm drains which surround the pitch. 

Dana Winograd, director of operations at Plastic Free Seas, says, “Even with the obvious and significant amounts of infill which can be seen in drains less than 200m away from the water’s edge, there is still corporate denial of any responsibility for the problem and there has been no attempt to even remove the infill from the drains to prevent further pollution.” 

You might also like: Ocean Park Conservation Foundation’s Funding Spotlights Marine Conservation and Illegal Wildlife Trade

plastic free seas microplastics

The rubber crumbs collected by the Plastic Free Seas team (Source: provided by Plastic Free Seas).

This infill is typically made from ground up tyres, from which chemicals and heavy metals make their way into seawater. 

Winograd says, “In the world of plastic marine pollution, there is often too much focus on cleanup and managing plastic pollution and not enough real action taken on prevention. A government investigation is slow and ongoing, and only as a result of a significant push from Plastic Free Seas. We need the government to find out the source of this problem, ensure that the ongoing pollution problem at this pitch is solved, and also to assess all the synthetic pitches in Hong Kong and mandate best practices for management to ensure the rubber crumb infill does not continue to pollute our seas and waterways.

More broadly, PFS has also urged the government for more transparency and communication with supporting NGOs. 

This article comes from the frontline activities of Plastic Free Seas, whose mission is to reduce plastic pollution in Hong Kong and beyond through education and action.

About Plastic Free Seas

Plastic Free Seas is a Hong Kong-based environmental charity focused on changing the way we all view and use plastics in society today, through education and action campaigns. Learn more at www.plasticfreeseas.org

Vietnam has banned the import and trade of wildlife, dead or alive, as well as wildlife products, and announced a crackdown on illegal wildlife markets. The move comes as part of efforts to reduce the risk of future pandemics such as COVID-19, and has been applauded by conservationists.

The country’s prime minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, issued a directive halting the trading of wild species, as well as products like eggs, organs or body parts. It also calls for tougher punishment against people involved in illegal hunting, killing or advertising of wild animals. 

The announcement has been welcomed by conservation groups, who have previously accused the government of being complacent in the fight against the trade of endangered species. In February, 14 conservation organisations in Vietnam sent a joint letter warning the government that ‘new viruses will continue to move from wildlife to people while illegal wildlife trade and wildlife consumptions continue’. This sentiment was echoed by the United Nations Environment Programme and the International Livestock Research Institute, who released a report warning that zoonotic diseases are increasing and will continue to do so without action to protect wildlife and preserve the environment. 

You might also like: How to Prevent the Next Pandemic

Vietnam is one of Asia’s biggest consumers of wildlife products, and the wildlife trade is thought to be a billion-dollar industry. The most frequently smuggled animal goods include tiger parts, rhino horn and pangolins. Animals are also bought as pets of status symbols. 

There is also a flourishing online wildlife trade, where images of species are posted on Facebook and YouTube. 

Steven Galster, chairman of the anti-trafficking group Freeland, says, “Vietnam is to be congratulated for recognising that COVID-19 and other pandemics are linked to the wildlife trade. This trade must be banned as a matter of international and public health security.” 

However, some warn that the ban is not far-reaching enough. Nguyen Van Thai, director of Save Vietnam’s Wildlife, says that the directive ‘is insufficient as some uses of wildlife such as medicinal use or wild animals being kept as pets are not covered’. Others warn that enforcement across the country’s borders may pose a challenge. 

The global wildlife trade has come under great scrutiny following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, which originated at a market in Wuhan, China, where animals such as snakes, beavers and badgers were sold. The Chinese government has since banned the wildlife trade and has placed a temporary ban on such markets. 

Featured image by: Wolf Gordon Clifton / Animal People, Inc.

ReThink Hong Kong is an ambitious two-day business conference taking place in Hong Kong this September that will explore and encourage meaningful partnerships, inspire organisational change and present solutions for a more sustainable economy, society and environment. Earth.Org spoke with ReThink founder, Chris Brown, about the event, the drive for sustainability in Hong Kong and how governments need to inspire consumer action.

The planet is facing unprecedented challenges due to unabated human activity. In order to give future generations a fighting chance of saving the planet, we need to prioritise collective change and shared responsibility through effective and meaningful collaboration. 

Earth.Org: How has COVID-19 Impacted the Organisation of the Event?

Chris Brown: Throughout February and March, things were very up in the air. We are very fortunate to have the partners that we do, who showed the commitment, support and flexibility that allowed us to find new dates in September. Of course, like everyone, we wish that COVID-19 hadn’t happened, but it’s opened up a new perspective for the event and we believe that we will have a more impactful event now; this pandemic shows that just as the effects of the virus are inescapable, so are those of the climate crisis. Unfortunately, there is a lack of comprehension of the severity of the climate crisis globally and in Hong Kong. A report by the Civic Exchange and World Resources Institute found that we need to cut emissions by 6.6% every year until 2050 to meet the Paris Agreement, which really puts a window on how bad the situation is. Their analysis highlights three key areas where Hong Kong has the greatest potential to reduce emissions, namely from improving electricity generation, making buildings more energy efficient and improving sustainability of transport. With the vast number of skyscrapers in Hong Kong and so much traffic on the road, it’s very clear that there is still a lot of work to do. 

However, despite these difficulties, we have still maintained our pledge of all delegate fees going to charity, as our commitment from the beginning has been to stage an impactful event while supporting our chosen NGOs (Feeding Hong Kong and Soap Cycling), which is all the more important in these difficult times. 

Regarding ReThink, we have one of the best speaker line-ups Hong Kong has seen, we have amazing support from our key stakeholders and all attendees are vetted and approved  so it will definitely be a purposeful event, with a delegate list that is authorised and empowered to drive change.

The virus has resulted in a different event to the one we designed 18 months ago – the perspectives will be vastly different because all these businesses have gone through an extremely challenging time and they all have different experiences as to how they have adapted to the pandemic. It’s not a big jump to apply these transformations as a result of COVID-19 to the environmental and social changes that we are asking them to adopt as well.

You might also like: Investments in Offshore Wind Energy Skyrocket Despite COVID-19 Shock

What Attracted You to the Environmental Sphere in Hong Kong?

I am a sustainability enthusiast and when I was living in the UK, I had a garden with a composting heap and vegetable garden. The council was also really good at recycling so it was relatively easy to live a sustainable lifestyle which changed a lot when I moved to Hong Kong. It’s not impossible to be sustainable, it’s just extremely difficult. 

I did extensive analysis of sustainability events in Hong Kong (as planning high-value business events is my area of expertise) and what impact they were having. After a lot of consultations and research, where I went out and spoke to businesses about what sustainability means to them, I realised that this is an area lacking credibility in the city. I then decided to create an event that could add value to the existing dialogues by curating a programme that focuses on the ‘how’ not the ‘why’ and bringing together corporate and enterprise stakeholders that want to make a difference. ReThink is not about bringing the who’s who in sustainability, but about bringing in new organisations and making driving sustainable development attractive within your organisation. There are different ways of getting people excited about sustainability: you can show them the risks of standing still or you can show them the opportunities of adapting – the opportunity to run a better business, to engage with your community or to have a more positive impact across your value chain. My hope is that organisations want to change the way they operate as consumer behaviour changes and they’ll rather spend their money with companies who are demonstrating there is another way to operate.

I also hope that the government implements more stringent, and globally proven, regulation so that businesses have to change the way they operate. 

Do You Think That it’s the Government’s Mandate to Encourage Sustainability?

Absolutely. The news that the municipal charging waste scheme has been withdrawn after a decade of debate and negotiations shows that something is wrong. I think I am confident in saying that governments believe that businesses wouldn’t want to pay, but there are proven models around the world that show that businesses will pay if the model is right and effective. 

We could turn the waste problem in Hong Kong into an opportunity for the city to become a regional leader in recycling- there is no reason why the government cannot make the necessary investment into this. There is a saying that “waste is just a resource in the wrong place;” if we put the infrastructure in and provide businesses with incentives to opt in to these services, we can create a whole new economy in Hong Kong, one that creates jobs and provides revenue. 

An example of this is a partnership between Baguio and Swire Beverages, where they’re establishing Hong Kong’s first dedicated PET and HDPE Recycling Facility. This is a great example of private businesses working to make a change but perhaps this should be the government’s responsibility instead of relying on the private sector. 

ReThink gives businesses a stage to talk about the challenges they’ve faced, how they’ve overcome them and the advice that they have for other stakeholders. 

Collaboration is open to everyone, and we hope that ReThink becomes the event in Hong Kong that enables effective solutions to be implemented and for this dialogue about the opportunities that becoming more sustainable will bring. It’s a shame that it’s taken something like COVID-19 to wake people up, but at least people are waking up.

ReThink will take place on September 2 & 3 at K11 Atelier King’s Road, Hong Kong. Sponsors of the event include HSBC, Cathay Pacific, SAP, CLP, Eaton, Impossible and InvestHK.

ReThink has been designed for professionals who are driven by, or challenged with, sustainability goals for their business or organisation and the event will answer a question that is vitally important for businesses in Hong Kong: how can we help businesses accelerate change towards a more sustainable future?

The event provides a platform for businesses, government and not-for-profit organisations to collaborate with each other to work towards a more sustainable world. Delegates can discuss how to implement actionable practices while meeting providers with deployable technology and real solutions. 

To see the program of the event, click here.

The Consumer Council, the consumer watchdog of Hong Kong, reported various levels of metallic contaminants in samples of canned fish that could pose health risks if eaten in excess. The watchdog also found that the contaminants reported were not present in a similar study conducted in 2004.

The council examined 46 samples of canned fish in Hong Kong, all of which are available on the market. In particular, 19 types of sardines, 20 types of tuna, and seven kinds of dace fish were tested, with prices ranging from HK$7.8 to HK$149 per can. 

On average, the sardine samples were found to contain the highest amount of cadmium- a chemical which can lead to chronic poisoning or irreversible kidney damage if consumed in copious amounts- followed by tuna. The dace fish samples did not contain any cadmium. 

The Food Adulteration Regulation, which is yet to take effect in Hong Kong until November, states that the maximum amount of cadmium that is safe for consumption is 0.1 mg. Two of the sardine samples, which were imported from Thailand, contained 0.11 to 0.13 mg per kg of cadmium. 

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Half of the sardine samples also contained polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a carcinogenic harmful to humans as classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. 

More than 70% and 10% of the sardine and tuna samples respectively contained inorganic arsenic- a toxin which, following prolonged exposure, can cause neurological and cardiovascular diseases. However, the samples contained between 0.04 to 0.08 mg per kg, below the maximum safe limit.

Methylmercury was identified in 18 of the 20 tuna samples, with levels ranging from 0.06 to 0.28 mg per kg- within the 0.5 mg per kg upper limit in Hong Kong. Consumed in excess,however, methylmercury can hinder foetuses’ nervous system development. “Foetuses and children are more prone to the adverse health effects posed by methylmercury as their brains are still developing. Excessive intake would lead to a decrease in intelligence of toddlers,” warned the council in their latest publication

All of the seven types of dace fish samples were found to have levels of metallic contaminants and PCBs well below the maximum cut-off guidelines. 

The 2004 Study

In 2004, a similar study by the Consumer Council examined nine types of sardines and eight types of tuna and found levels of arsenic that complied with Hong Kong’s food regulations at the time, although cadmium, lead and PCBs were not found. 

Levels of methylmercury were found in four samples of canned tuna in amounts well below the safety limit in mainland China, the regulations of which were more stringent than those in Hong Kong at the time. The council did not express concern over the methylmercury content in canned fish. 

Gilly Wong Fung-han, chief executive of the council, says, “the latest study reflects the severity of environmental pollution in the food chain, which in turn shows the increased contamination in canned fish.” 

Cause for Concern 

Nora Tam Fung-yee, chairwoman of the Consumer Council’s research and testing committee, says that consumers needn’t be worried about eating canned fish in general, as ‘you have to eat a huge amount over a long period of time to be adversely affected’. 

Wong noted that consumers should not completely cut canned fish out of their diet as it is an ‘easy source of high protein’, but they should rather limit intake and eat in moderation. She however advises that pregnant women avoid canned fish so as not to risk harming foetuses.

What Does this Mean for the Future of Food Security?

Hopefully, following the enactment of Hong Kong’s Food Adulteration Regulation, the fishing industry and supermarket suppliers alike will become more strict regarding which canned fish products they make available on the market. 

In order to strengthen food security, fishermen should designate fishing sites which lack pollution, are maintained to a high degree and that care for the health of the fish and their food chain. 

Consumers should also be made aware of the potential risks of consuming canned fish to ensure they make an informed decision. 

As metallic contaminants accumulate in the fatty tissue of fish, the safety of other marine animals, who share the same ecosystem and who may rely on fish as a food source, is an additional factor to take into consideration. Humans should either cut back on their intake on fish (and meat in general) so as to avoid contamination, or address the causes of the contamination in the first place, including pollution and waste water run-off.

Weeks of torrential downpours in China have caused the worst flooding of the Yangtze River in the eastern province of Jiangxi since 1998, with floods impacting 38 million people and killing at least 140, the country’s Ministry of Emergency Management says. 

On July 13, the Changjiang Water Resources Commission’s hydrology bureau said the flood has passed its peak in the Jiujiang region, leaving it with a water level of 22.81m, the highest since 1998, when massive floods killed more than 3 000 people. 

On July 12, Chinese authorities raised the country’s flood alert to the second highest level in a four-tier emergency response system. President Xi Jinping has called for ‘stronger and more effective measures to protect lives’.

The floods have ravaged 8.72 million acres of farmland and according to state news agency Xinhua, by July 12, the floods had caused USD$11.75 billion of economic losses throughout China.

While live monitoring shows that Yangtze has stabilised, other water bodies in the area, including the country’s largest freshwater lake, Poyang, continue to pose a threat and other provinces in the flood’s path are waiting their turn. On July 13, the lake reached a historic high of 22.6m, but its waters are now expected to slowly recede over the next few days.

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Water levels at the Three Gorges reservoir, which cut its discharge volumes for a fifth time on July 11 to ease downstream water levels, have now risen to 153.2 m, 6.7 m higher than the warning level.

While summer floods are not an unusual occurrence in China due to seasonal rains, this year’s downpours are particularly bad. Flooding has hit 27 out of the 31 provincial regions in mainland China, with the average precipitation in the Yangtze River basin reaching the highest level recorded since 1961

Chen Tao, the chief weather forecaster at the National Meteorological Center, was quoted as saying, “Compared with before, this year’s rainfall was more intense and repeatedly poured down on the same region, which brought significant pressure on flood control.”

443 rivers throughout the country have been flooded, with 33 of them rising to the highest levels ever recorded, the Ministry of Water Resources said. The majority of these rivers are in the basin of the Yangtze River, which flows from west to east through densely populated provinces of central China. The river is the most important waterway in the country, irrigating large areas of farmland and linking inland industrial metropolises with Shanghai.

Ye Jianchun, vice minister of water resources, told a briefing on Monday, “Going into the key flood-prevention period of late July to early August, the current trends remain grim on the Yangtze and the Lake Tai basins.” He added that the belts of heavy rain that have lashed central China would eventually head north.

China’s weather bureau said that although some regions in the southwest would see a temporary respite from the heavy rain, central and eastern China would continue to bear the brunt of the storms. On July 14, the China Meteorological Administration issued a blue alert for heavy rain until Saturday in provinces in the country including Sichuan, Hubei, Anhui, Jiangsu and Zhejiang. 

In the meantime, residents along the Yangtze River and in the Poyang Lake region continue to implement their own series of defence measures, securing riverbanks and fortifying dykes with sandbags to prevent entire villages being submerged. 

Featured image by: LanguageTeaching

Retailers in Japan have started charging for plastic bags, in a move aimed at cutting down on plastic packaging and waste. Shops can decide how much to charge customers for the bags, with a common price being three yen (around three US cents). 

Stores are being asked to charge at least one yen for bags and they may also start distributing free, reusable plastic shopping bags, as well as bags that are decomposed by microorganisms in the sea and those containing at least 25% biomass materials.

Japan’s Plastic Waste

According to the UN, Japan is the second-highest producer of plastic packaging waste per capita in the world, behind the US. The country produces more than nine million tons of plastic waste a year, and in 2018, it vowed to reduce this by 25% by 2030. In December 2019, the government revised the law on containers and packaging recycling, hoping to encourage more people to bring their own bags when going shopping. 

You might also like: Op-Ed: Moving to a Circular Economy Model is Vital for the Planet

The government said in a policy document that the fee “is aimed at prompting people to think twice if a bag is really necessary and helping people to review their lifestyles.”

To tackle the high rates of marine plastic waste in the country, its Environment Ministry has launched a campaign to raise the proportion of shoppers who do not seek plastic bags at stores from 30% in March this year to more than 60% at the end of this year. 

“We will roll out plastic shopping bags fees in hope of making people aware of [the seriousness] of the global issue,” said Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi at a news conference on Tuesday last week. 

Japan has a robust waste management system, with government statistics saying that more than 80% of its plastic waste is recycled. However, much of this recycling involves incinerating plastic, often to produce energy, which generates carbon dioxide.

Although plastic shopping bags account for only around 2% of all plastic waste produced in the country, the government hopes that this fee will encourage consumers to change their packaging habits and be more mindful of their impact on the environment. In the long term, it hopes that the fee becomes the catalyst for more widespread reductions in the overall plastic waste.

Featured image by: Keng Susumpow

Supermarket shelves around the world were emptied as people panic bought due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In Singapore, this brought attention to the republic’s overreliance on food imports and its subsequent food security. Fortuitously, Singapore made plans in 2019 to reduce its dependence on food imports with its “30 by 30” vision, whereby 30% of Singapore’s nutritional needs will be produced locally by 2030, up from less than 10% today. 

Singapore currently imports over 90% of its food supply, making it especially sensitive to any changes in the global agricultural landscape. Major importers include Malaysia, Brazil and Australia. When Malaysia announced its lockdown, many Singaporeans scrambled to supermarkets, fearing that imported food from Malaysia would suddenly be cut off. Even before COVID-19, the climate crisis already posed a threat to global food supply, negatively affecting crop yields. Additionally, the amount of fertile land in the world has fallen by 33% in 40 years, yet demand for food is expected to increase as the global population continues to rise and the affluence of developing countries grows. Hence, in times of crises, having a robust local food supply to fall back on can act as a buffer to cushion Singapore from any negative food supply shocks.

Nearly tripling local food production in 10 years seems like a daunting task, but Singapore has a robust plan to achieve this “30 by 30” vision. 

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The heightened production will be mainly focused on eggs, leafy vegetables, fruits and fish. To increase food production and achieve the “30 by 30” plan, Singapore needs to convert more spaces for urban farming. Land is a precious resource in Singapore, with 5.6 million people in an area of 721.5 km², even smaller than New York City. As of 2016, agriculture occupied 0.93% of Singapore’s land area. By creatively tapping into underused and integrated spaces, Singapore hopes to produce more in less space. Recent plans have revealed that urban farms will be developed on carpark rooftops and integrated into multi-purpose sites, one of which was initially an old school campus. Singapore Food Agency has also been collaborating with other agencies to open up more of Singapore’s southern waters for fish farms, expanding on the one that is currently in operation. 

Improving technologies to increase production efficiency is also key to ramp up food production. In the field of agri-tech, heavy research and development efforts are ongoing. At the micro level, researchers are working to discover high yield and resilient genetic species. By detecting the chemicals plants emit, researchers aim to detect their precise optimal growing conditions. At the macro level, knowing these exact conditions can help to engineer resource-efficient and productive farming systems that will raise yields as well. Many considerations will also be taken to ensure food safety, by creating new models and systems to detect and predict any safety hazards in these new foods. 

Having the infrastructure and technology in place and creating an economic environment that supports enterprises will be the next step in promoting growth in the agri-food sector. A pool of experts that are well-versed in the urban farming and food production industry can help form suitable industry regulations that will help to reduce compliance costs and ensure a high standard of food safety. Grants for high-efficiency farms such as the Agriculture Productivity Fund (AFP)’s Productivity Enhancement (PE) scheme will encourage farms to improve and upgrade their technology, while reducing business costs. To train a future network of knowledgeable and experienced professionals, Singapore has set up certified courses in urban agricultural technology and aquaculture in tertiary education institutions, as well as a SkillsFuture Programme, a subsidised skills upgrading programme for Singaporeans. 

Encouraging Singaporeans to Buy Local Produce

Most importantly, the work to increase local supply must also be met by an increase in consumer demand. The Singapore Food Agency (SFA) aims to raise Singaporean’s demand for local food by raising awareness about the existence and benefits of buying homegrown food. Holding a ‘SG Farmers’ Market’ several times a year that features local farms and putting a logo on produce that marks it as homegrown are part of SFA’s plans to shine a spotlight and raise awareness of local produce.

In light of the pandemic, the government has introduced a SGD$30 million (USD$22 million) grant for local producers who can utilise high-efficiency farming systems and quickly raise their output. Producers may apply and submit their project proposals for this grant, named the 30×30 Express grant, which will help approved applicants cover up to 85% of the project costs. This is on top of the existing SGD$144 million (USD$118 million) in the Singapore Food Story R&D Program, that supports research in the agri-food sector.

Moving forward, one key way Singaporeans can help to achieve the “30 by 30” target is to support and buy from local producers, as said by Minister Masagos Zulkifli, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources in Singapore. Singaporeans can also look forward to hearing more about new innovative developments as a result of the 30×30 Express grant, or a new urban farm sprouting up in their neighbourhood. 

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, popularly known as CITES, is a rare animal: an international environmental treaty with teeth. It regulates the global trade in some of the world’s most threatened species, with the power to ban it when needed.

Now, 45 years after it came into force, CITES appears to be having its moment of reckoning as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. The convention is ratified by almost all countries of the world, including the U.S. and China, and is binding. Even the Paris climate agreement is not enforceable.

In March, when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, questions flew thick and fast about the novel coronavirus’s link to the wildlife trade. While conservation groups jumped at the chance to highlight the relationship between pandemics and wildlife exploitation, the CITES Secretariat, responsible for coordinating the work of its parties, appeared to distance itself from the crisis. “Matters regarding zoonotic diseases are outside of CITES’s mandate,” it said in a statement, “and therefore the CITES Secretariat does not have the competence to make comments regarding the recent news on the possible links between human consumption of wild animals and COVID-19.”

This sparked outrage and invited scrutiny. “What the statement actually said is that they don’t care. They don’t care about what is happening in the world; they think it’s none of their business,” said Vera Weber, president of the Switzerland-based NGO Franz Weber Foundation. “And it says they can’t do anything about it, which is not true because trade, be it legal or illegal, is fueling these pandemics.”

Can CITES as it exists today help ward off the next pandemic, many conservationists are wondering. It should be part of the solution, many believe.

“CITES has enjoyed keeping its rather narrow focus,” John Scanlon, who served as CITES secretary-general from 2010 to 2018, told Mongabay. He said that means it doesn’t directly address non-trade issues like climate impacts, invasive species or animal welfare. “It has tended to want to stick to the sustainability issues,” said Scanlon, who now consults for the NGO African Parks.

That narrow focus is a blessing, according to some experts. Protecting threatened species from being decimated by the international wildlife trade, both legal and illegal, is a monumental undertaking. And the multilateral treaty has recorded some hard-won successes, most notably the banning of trade in elephant ivory in 1990. In the decade preceding the ban, over 50,000 African elephants were hunted down every year for their tusks.

However, the ban has had limited success in stifling the illegal ivory trade. CITES relies on national governments to enforce its edicts, and without their consistent and sustained cooperation, many CITES regulations fail to achieve their objectives.

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CITES
African grey elephants

Some see a by-the-book reading of its mandate as a failing in the face of the coronavirus disaster. “The secretariat tends to forget that CITES cannot only be characterized as a trade agreement, but it is also part of international environmental law,” Weber said.

Many experts, including Weber, favor expanding the agreement, rather than replacing or sidelining it.

“It seems that CITES, as it stands, has become obsolete. It needs to be renewed. It needs to be modernized. It needs to be taken into the 21st century,” she said. “We can’t go on talking about trading in endangered species, when we have such big biodiversity loss in the world. This loss of biodiversity and loss of habitats are also causing pandemics such as COVID-19.”

Getting countries to agree on enforceable treaties is an arduous process that takes years. The Paris climate accord came on the back of over twenty years of climate talks and at least four years of purposeful negotiations. The urgency created by the pandemic may not generate enough political will to produce a new agreement.

CITES covers around 35,000 species of plants and animals whose survival experts believe may be threatened by international trade. The convention classifies them into three categories or appendices, each subject to increasingly restrictive trade regulations based on the risk that global trade poses to their populations in the wild. Though large, the treaty covers only a fraction of the 8.7 million species of plants and animals on Earth.

The convention does not regulate trade in many of the animals known to pose a health risk to humans.

Horseshoe bats, a family of bats considered to be a potential reservoir for the virus that causes SARS and a possible host species for the novel coronavirus, are not listed in CITES. Neither is the Asian palm civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus), the intermediary species from which the SARS coronavirus may have jumped to humans.

What has made it difficult for groups to get behind calls for change is the gaping hole at the center of the COVID-19 chronicle. We still do not know how the novel coronavirus, called SARS–CoV-2, jumped from animals to humans. This is likely to remain a mystery for months, if not years. It may remain a mystery forever. Even today, no one is quite sure how the Ebola virus slid from wild animals into human populations. Scientists have discounted as baseless the idea that the novel coronavirus was engineered in a lab or accidentally released from a lab.

Currently, most experts believe the spillover happened when someone foraging for food or involved in trading live wild animals came in contact with an animal carrying the SARS-CoV-2 virus or an ancestor of the virus. This animal may have been a bat or an intermediary host. There are suggestions that the virus jumped to humans from pangolins. This has led to more questions for CITES. While it may not regulate trade in horseshoe bats or palm civets, pangolins enjoy the highest level of protection under the convention. Trade in all eight species of these threatened mammals is illegal. These scaly anteaters are considered the most illegally trafficked mammals in the world.

The COVID-19 pandemic has raised questions that go beyond the international illegal wildlife trade. The virus could have entered human communities through legal or illegal trade in wild animals.  Pangolins are found not just in Africa but also in South Asia and Southeast Asia, including in China.  A recent paper noted similarities between the coronavirus infecting humans and one found in Sunda pangolins (Manis javanica), native to Southeast Asia. The virus could have emerged from and been transported by animals captured domestically or transported from other countries.

The uncertainty has allowed some policymakers and agencies to resist calls for change to environmental policies. For others, however, it means they need to cast a broader net.

“Any environmental treaty has to be a living instrument because it needs to keep adapting and responding to threats to the species that the treaty deals with,” said Shruti Suresh, a lawyer with the U.K.-based Environmental Investigation Agency. “The existing CITES framework can be applied to tackle public health concerns associated with wildlife trade, for example, through initiatives to close domestic markets and eliminate demand.”

Another possible approach would be to craft a new agreement to address trade in species that pose a threat to human health. But some experts note that such a treaty could be duplicative of CITES, and that might make the regulatory framework more cumbersome. “[What] we are suggesting is that the CITES treaty essentially be amended to support the regulation of trade in wild animals that affects humans,” said Dan Ashe from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), a U.S.-based NGO. “We have an existing mechanism for enforcement, that seems to us to be an order of magnitude more available as opposed to building a brand new international enforceable agreement.”

But amending CITES may not be enough to address the issues raised by the COVID-19 pandemic, even those related to wildlife exploitation.

Apart from being expanded, there is a pressing need to strengthen CITES and reinforce the architecture of global environmental law in which it is embedded, experts say.

The treaty does not tackle wildlife crime, per se, and does not apply to environmental transgressions that occur within national boundaries. It lays down regulations for the import, export and re-export of certain wildlife and wildlife products, which have to be enforced by the countries that are signatories to the convention. Countries have their own laws that deal with crimes like poaching, illegal logging and illegal fishing.

Domestic crimes fuel the transnational illicit trade in wildlife and wildlife products — everything from live animals and animal parts, to precious timber. Wildlife trafficking is one of the most lucrative illegal trades in the world, rivaling in value the trade in drugs, weapons, and human traffic.  But it is often not treated as a serious crime by many countries.

Because of the complexity of the global trade in wildlife, CITES collaborates with organizations like INTERPOL, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the World Bank, and the World Customs Organization through the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime.

“At the moment we have this sort of mishmash system,” Scanlon said. “the implications of these wildlife crimes are so great, we need to focus the international community’s attention on it, and the attention of the criminal justice system on it.”

Scanlon said he favored raising the profile of wildlife crimes by adding a protocol under the U. N. Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC), which currently focuses primarily on human trafficking and the illegal arms trade. Suresh agreed that this would be a positive step. “It would shine a spotlight on wildlife crime as organized crime, not just something that is about legal and illegal trade, which is the lens that CITES tends to use.” It could ensure better coordination and support from enforcement agencies in countries, she said.

The responsibility to bring about change, however, will ultimately rest with the nations that are party to these agreements. There is a growing sense that difficult decisions need to be made and implemented soon, and CITES may be a place to start.

“The decision-making authorities under the CITES are the world governments that have signed up to it. If we want this issue to be front and center and addressed we don’t have to wait for the CITES secretariat,” Suresh said. “The parties need to be bringing this issue front and center [at] the next CITES meeting whether that’s EU, Asian states, African states or China itself.”

This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Malavika Vyawahare, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org. 

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