What a waste: Recycling pioneer says Macao needs to tackle its rubbish problem

Without major changes, Macao is a long way away from a waste-free future, says environmental activist Benvinda dos Santos.

Macao is struggling to handle its garbage problem. With a population of 670,900, the city’s municipal solid waste (which includes food waste and materials such as plastic, metals and paper) reached 522,548 tonnes in 2018.

That’s 2.17kg of solid waste per person per day – more than double the volume of neighbouring cities such as Guangzhou and Shanghai. (see video). 

The plastic recycling rate in Macao is also one of the world’s worst. In 2018, the city recycled less than 1 per cent of around 117,570 tonnes of plastic waste generated.

The government introduced recycling bins in public areas in 2011 and a plastic bag levy of MOP1 (US$0.12) in 2019 (about a decade after Hong Kong made the same move), but such initiatives have been slow to catch on.

To raise awareness about the problem, recycling pioneer Benvinda dos Santos has organised several grassroots campaigns with friends and allies. We asked the 37-year-old resident and mother of three what’s missing in Macao – and how the city can achieve a more sustainable future.

Ariana: Tell us about your environmental campaigns. What have you achieved so far?

I launched a photo-driven Facebook campaign called #noplasticplease in September 2018 to encourage zero-packaging in local supermarkets.

After the campaign collected almost 700 photos from local citizens in two months, Agnes Lam, a lawmaker in Macao, helped arrange a meeting between representatives from the government, several local supermarkets and myself. 

As a result of the meeting, the government launched the Recognition Plan of Eco-Supermarkets in 2019 to encourage recycling and the reduction of single-use packaging across 86 shops from 13 supermarket chains. It is a good first step but laws on packaging waste are still up in the air. 

Ariana: Can you tell us about ‘Macau for Waste Reduction’?

‘Macau for Waste Reduction’ is another campaign that I launched with friends in 2019. The campaign hosts recycling stations across the city, which collect around 100kg of recyclable materials – such as plastics, metal and paper – each month. 

It is still a very insignificant amount, but the campaign also provides opportunities to interact face-to-face with local residents, teaching them about proper recycling practices, from cleaning to sorting. In this way, we can ensure that the quality of all the collected items are suitable for recycling, before we deliver them to the local recycling companies. 

We also hope to eventually educate people to reduce their everyday waste and raise awareness about pressing environmental issues, such as the crisis brought by climate change, which is rarely discussed by the government and the public in Macao. 

Ariana: When it comes to tackling waste, what do you think is missing?

Awareness is a major problem. Individuals, companies and even the government have never cared too much about waste management

That’s because they can just send everything straight to the city’s incinerator, which handles almost 80 per cent of the city’s solid waste. People don’t realise the environmental impact of incinerators [which emit pollutants such as ash and flue gas that consist of harmful chemicals].

Ariana: What can the Macao government do to minimise the city’s waste?

Establish a “polluter pays” principle via local laws, such as introducing charges on household waste and taxes on non-recyclable plastic packaging.

People will be more motivated to sort and recycle if they have to pay to dump their rubbish. Furthermore, the government should set an example: Reduce single-use items across government departments, recycle whenever possible, and stop distributing unnecessary souvenirs at events.

The government should also educate and encourage citizens and local businesses to contribute, and recognise their efforts. At the end of the day, environmental protection requires everyone to fulfil their responsibility to the world.

Ariana: Macao sees 30 million tourists each year. How can the industry minimise its impact?

We cannot expect tourists to bring their own reusable items when traveling, but there are a lot of things that Macao’s hotels and casinos can do to reduce waste.

For instance, they can use refillable toiletries, distribute fewer plastic water bottles, and practice recycling within their property. The government could also set up more recycling facilities with clear instructions in tourist zones and encourage people to recycle.

Ariana: How can everyday people reduce their waste?

First, check your rubbish bin. If the same item appears more than once a week, find a reusable solution. For instance, if you find multiple single-use meal containers, start using a reusable lunch box.

You can also reduce food waste at home by not cooking buying more than you need. Use your consumer power to support products that are free of packaging. 

And most importantly: Vote for the lawmakers who are willing to speak up for the environment. This is the most powerful way to change society.

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