Photo: Circular City
By Samantha Lees
With over 100 million single-use plastic tableware items sent to landfill every week, Hong Kong is facing a “plastic disaster” (Greeners Action, 2020), and we can’t recycle our way out of this mountain of a problem. We spoke to Tim Parker, founder and CEO of Circular City, about building a circular economy, starting with the humble, reusable coffee cup.
Enabling cities to go zero-waste
“Circular City was initially started because I got so frustrated with plastic pollution being everywhere.” Tim recounted one of his first memories of Hong Kong being on the beach in Lamma Island wading through plastic bags and rubbish, and since then couldn’t help noticing it everywhere around the city. “Being a mechanical engineer, I wanted to try and use my skill set to do something about it”.
Tim’s original idea was to create an app that rewarded people for recycling better, but the more he learned about the circular economy* the more he realised that recycling was not the answer. “It’s an ‘easy way’ for people to get rid of the guilt”, says Tim. “How can we be genuine in telling people to sort their rubbish when we can’t even tell them what happens downstream?”, lamenting the lack of transparency in Hong Kong’s ineffective recycling system.
That’s when Circular City shifted their focus to getting people to reduce in the first place, starting with reusable and returnable takeout containers. “For a circular economy to work in Hong Kong, it needs the infrastructure for returning things, which currently isn’t there.”
Packaging as a Service, Choose: Reuse
Circular City is creating a system where food outlets serve takeaway food or beverage in reusable containers provided and washed by Circular City, based on a refundable deposit model.
In order to test this concept, Circular City launched the pilot programme ‘Choose: Reuse’, using participating cafes located at both ends of the Central-Discovery Bay ferry route as their testing ground.
Photo: Circular City
How it works:
- On your first borrow, tap your Octopus on the Choose: Reuse electronic reader to register, and pay a $30 refundable deposit.
- The barista will scan the borrowed cup which links it to your Octopus ID, and enjoy your waste-free drink.
- To return, scan the cup at a Choose: Reuse smart return station or drop it off at partner outlets.
- The smart return stations will show how many cups you’ve borrowed, as well as the collective impact of everyone who chooses to reuse.
Photo: Circular City
“It’s been working really well so far because we’re on the DB-Central ferry route. So you can borrow the cup in DB, enjoy your coffee on the ferry, and drop it off in Central.” At the end of the 6-week pilot that had just ended on 15 August 2021, the total tally of cups borrowed (and hence saved) was 1,017.
In addition to diverting waste from Hong Kong’s near-capacity landfills, the benefits achieved from this system of reusables is multifaceted:
- Properties and retail outlet that host a return point can attract more foot traffic and customer engagement
- F&B providers using reusables can reduce packaging costs in the long run and cater to growing customer demand for sustainable practices
- Customers can see the impact of their choices, while not needing to carry around their own cup all the time
Choose: Reuse’s scanning function enables the collection and analysis of cup-borrowing data, with which Circular City envisions to help provide businesses and property management with reliable information on where and how reusables are being used in their network in order to create a practical ecosystem for borrowing and returning. “This is much more reliable compared to the current system, which is the waste management company saying they’ve collected a certain amount of recyclables, which is very non-transparent.”
Photo: Emmy Smith on Unsplash
More people are becoming aware that there’s a different way of doing things
In addition to cups, Circular City has plans for expanding its services of supplying reusable food containers for takeaway. With the government’s recent public consultation, the conversation around single-use is starting to change. “We know that there could potentially be bans on single-use, can we make our alternatives more beneficial than compostables?” While many well-intentioned business owners have made the switch from plastic packaging to compostable packaging options, the lack of industrial composting facilities in Hong Kong means that these compostable containers still end up in landfills (where even organic items don’t decompose). To tackle Hong Kong’s monumental waste problem, we must look beyond disposables of any form, and look to circular economy solutions.
Photo: Circular City
“There’s a lot of concern on the hygiene aspect of reusables,” says Tim when asked about the potential challenges facing Circular City. “I put the question back to them, has your single-use been cleaned before you put food in it? How many people have touched it as it has made its way through the supply chain, versus the reusable which has literally been washed the day before?” For reusables to go mainstream, public trust towards cleaning protocols will have to be built, despite the concept being virtually no different to dining in at restaurants. The other aspect is designing the cups and containers for stackability, a crucial element for the space-strapped establishments of Hong Kong.
Building the right partnerships with the right people
“It’s been very challenging to try and make it happen as one company – getting a lot of different people, community partners, property management, F&B and volunteers all on board with the idea.”
Not having come from the food and hospitality industry himself, Tim has found the Food Made Good network to be immensely useful in being introduced to and connecting with relevant players in the sector. “The members I’ve chatted with have been so helpful, sharing their practices and problems and giving their input on the model.” Tim looks forward to meeting more members of the community, working together to raise awareness about sustainability issues, and building partnerships to propel the waste-free movement in Hong Kong.
* What is the circular economy? According to the Ellen McArthur Foundation, the circular economy is based on the three principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems. Read more about it here.