Deep in the belly of one of Hong Kong's largest malls, a mechanical stomach is digesting a social ill that is now catching the attention of this city's restaurateurs and environmentalists: too many leftovers.
Elsewhere in the territory, restaurant owners are starting to sound like your mother. They are putting little signs on tables that threaten to fine diners who leave food on their plates.
US and European cities have wrestled with excess food waste for more than a decade, but Hong Kong's prosperity and shrinking landfill space are only now pushing it to adopt a new consumption ethic. Neither the 'GoMixer' beneath the Festival Walk Mall, nor the prospect of punishment, has had much impact yet. But they are signs of things to come.
In the past five years the amount of food wasted by Hong Kong's restaurants, hotels, and food manufacturers has more than doubled, according to the Environmental Protection Department (EPD). Food accounts for about one third of the 9,300 tons of waste deposited at landfills every day, says P.H. Lui, the EPD's chief environmental protection officer. By comparison, 12 percent of the US waste stream was food scraps in 2005, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. "This is a problem that we have to overcome," says Mr.
Lui, who attributes the rapid rise in waste to the greater prosperity Hong Kongers have been enjoying recently. Landfills are filling up, and even if they had unlimited capacity, rotting food in a landfill gives off methane, one of the most notorious of greenhouse gases.
The Hong Kong government is setting up an experimental composter that will transform four tons of food waste a day into soil conditioner, encouraging hotels and catering firms eager to burnish their "green" image to truck some of their waste up to the recycling center in Kowloon.
"In the longer term we'll need hundreds of this kind of facility," predicts Lui.
Festival Walk, an upscale mall where patrons of the food court leave 1,200 kilos (2,645 pounds) of food on their plates every day, is dealing with at least part of the problem at the source. The mall's managers have installed a "digester" in the basement that "eats" 100 kilos of leftovers daily.
The machine, a large stainless steel chest, is maintained at a steady 37 degrees Centigrade (98.6 degrees F.), and fed three times a day with leftovers and a handful of rice husks impregnated with enzymes that speed up decomposition. Every hour, a set of turbine blades churns the food up for a minute and by the time the process is over 100 kilos of noodles, croissants, green vegetables, meatballs, crispy duck, you name it, has been reduced to five kilos of sludge, several liters of water and a puff of CO2. The sludge then goes to the dump.
The machine digests everything you might find on a plate except bones, plastic cutlery, napkins, and crab shells. In many US and European cities, supermarkets and restaurants now donate leftovers to homeless shelters and low-income families. One major US hotel in Hong Kong donated its food leftovers to a senior citizens center. But it stopped after Hong Kong officials raised concerns about health issues.
Some restaurant owners here are also taking aim at the pocketbooks of diners whose eyes are bigger than their stomachs. Such customers are most common at Hong Kong's "hot pot" restaurants that offer "all you can eat" for a fixed price. Customers often order far more dishes to boil in a "hot pot" of broth than they are able to consume, and everything they leave has to be thrown away. That is not just wasteful; it is unprofitable for restaurateurs. One restaurant charges HK$5 (US64 cents) per ounce of leftovers.
"All you can eat" sushi joints also have a problem with diners who pile their plates high and then simply eat the raw fish off the top, leaving the rice. One sushi restaurateur, according to local media, charges HK$10 (US$1.28) per leftover sushi.
A dozen or so Hong Kong restaurants have taken to warning customers that they risk being fined if they order more than they can eat, though few if any have actually enforced the policy yet, according to Simon Wong, president of Hong Kong's Federation of Restaurants and Related Trades.
"It's more of an educational process at this stage," says Mr. Wong. "Most people take notice, and once you say this [wasting food] is no good, people respect that and eat less."
The restaurant owners issuing the warnings say that "they find their food costs have lowered; people don't want so much," Wong reports.