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Hong Kong Struggles to Cut Food Waste

Mountains of food waste are a growing problem in many affluent countries. In Hong Kong, where people love to eat out, leftover food takes up much of the limited space in city landfills. The city is trying to reduce the waste. As Claudia Blume reports from Hong Kong, some restaurants are even fining diners for leftovers, and one mall has set up a mechanical belly to digest waste.

Customers in the food court of Hong Kong's upscale Festival Walk mall line up for a late breakfast. Many of them will not be able to finish what is on their plate. The mall produces about 1.8 tons of food waste every day.

Most of the uneaten rice, chicken, noodles and other food lands in a huge shredding machine in the mall basement. It compacts the waste before it is taken to a landfill.

But some of the leftovers are eliminated in the mall itself. Every day, workers throw about 100 kilograms of food waste into a mechanical digester - a stainless steel container that treats organic waste through fermentation and other processes to turn most of it into water.

Miranda Szeto is a spokeswoman for the company that owns the mall.

"Its major function is to break down the food waste into 95 percent water and carbon dioxide with only five percent residue, which would be brought to the landfill site," she explains.

The company is planning to extend the project to its other malls. Waste reduction initiatives like this are needed because Hong Kong is running out of landfill space.

About a third of the more than nine-thousand tons of solid waste dumped in the city's landfills each day is leftover food. P.H. Lui of Hong Kong's Environmental Protection Department says the amount of food discarded by the hospitality industry more than doubled in the past five years.

"We believe it relates to the sort of the booming of the economy in Hong Kong," he said. "More people (are) eating out - and that's why the commercial sector, including the restaurants and hotels, they have more customers and so there is more food waste."

People in Hong Kong love to eat out. There is a restaurant at every street corner, offering everything from cheap noodle soup to five-star dining.

Many diners have more food on the plate than they can eat. The Green Student Council, a local environmental group, surveyed one thousand people outside Hong Kong restaurants last year to find out whether food was being wasted. Angus Ho is a member of the group.

"We find that only 13 percent of them can finish everything in their lunch and we find that about 87 percent of them always left some food behind," Ho says. "So we also find that 44 percent of these respondents say that they often left over 30 percent or more."

The green group urges restaurants to offer portions in different sizes, and calls on diners to only order food they are sure they will eat.

At buffets and all-you-can-eat sushi or hot pot restaurants, patrons can be tempted to pile too much on their plates. About 30 restaurants in Hong Kong are using fines to stop that from happening.

A waitress at the Ming General sushi restaurant in the city's Wanchai district explains her restaurant's policy, which could be summed up as "Eat up - or pay more."

"In order not to waste food, we charge $1.30 for each leftover sushi," she says.

She says the restaurant fines two customers on average every week. Some get angry, but most patrons think it is a good policy.

"I think it's a good idea because it will save more food, save more resources," one customer says.

"I think this policy can aware the people to protect the food," adds another.

The idea is not unique to Hong Kong. All-you-can-eat restaurants in several countries - including the Philippines, Australia and Canada - also fine wasteful customers.

Simon Wong, president of the Hong Kong restaurant federation, says the threat of a fine affects patrons' behavior.

"I have been talking to some of the restaurant owners who put up this kind of measure, it seems that most of the people when they see this notice put up, they would have a second thought and would not order that much food," he says.

The amount of waste reduced by fines or the mechanic digester is small, however.

The Environmental Protection Department says it is also trying to turn the city's leftovers into something useful. In a pilot project later this year, the environmental agency will recycle four tons of food waste every day. Composting units will turn the waste into fertilizer for farming and soil conditioner for landscaping.