Orange News: The advent of the COVID pandemic has resulted in the once distant notion of ‘work from home’ becoming the new norm. Thereof encourages many to question fundamental assumptions underpinning the concept of the ‘office’. For instance, whether the purpose of offices, which has remained unchallenged for decades, is still compatible with the needs of contemporary white-collar workers. Consequently, many offices are reorganized, striving to become more energy-efficient and people-centric.
Improved technologies and office layout design can improve the well-being of employees’ life, however, have not drastically reduced office carbon footprints, as large proportions of office furniture are often discarded—the latter suggesting a lack of awareness by Hong Kong authorities and businesses of embodied carbon’s significance. According to the 2018 Global Status Report by the UN Environment, embodied emissions from the construction of new buildings accounted for 11% of global energy-related carbon emissions in 2017.
For instance, large volumes of valuable furniture are discarded when the offices undergo renovation. Yet, likely due to a lack of incentive for businesses to adopt proper recycling practices, such furniture is usually demolished by contractors alongside inert materials such as bricks, pipes, window frames, and tiles. Consequently, rather than being donated to local charities and schools or redistributed in the local circular market, large amounts of precious furniture are amalgamated with construction waste and rashly discharged into public landfills. In 2020, EPD statistics indicate that 1.25 million tonnes of construction waste were sent to landfills.
Indeed, the situation appears concerning. One can deduce that improvements to indoor environments, for improving energy efficiency and wellbeing, will inevitably create massive amounts of waste, thus directly contradicting decarbonisation goals. However, one could find a solution with the use of ‘second hand ’. Firstly, circular furniture reduces environmental impact as less embodied carbon and waste are generated. Likewise, businesses and charities will benefit as capital expenditure will be drastically reduced, simultaneously supporting schools and NGOs.
Furthermore, besides improving indoor air quality with fewer emissions, it is because new furniture may contain potentially harmful materials that can off-gas chemicals and release particulates into the air we breathe. Circular furniture is much cheaper and available at shorter timeframes than brand new products since overseas shipping will not be required. Additionally, with minor design modifications and refurbishment, circular products can be equally beautiful and efficient for the workspace.
The concept of ‘Circular Furniture’ is not as nascent as it might first appear. Investigation into the successful application of the idea in Europe and China suggests two lessons applicable to Hong Kong. The importance of socio-cultural attitudes and a strong commitment by authorities.
For example, notions such as sustainability and recycling have long been ingrained into many European nations’ socio-cultural identities and dialects. Hence, the growth of a circular furniture economy in Europe, fuelled by niche start-ups such as Pentatonic, Van de Sant, Vepa and ecoBirdy, is unsurprising. In truth, ‘recycling’ is pervasively embraced by many Europeans and has become part of everyday life.
Similarly, the idea of ‘circular furniture’ has been resolutely implemented by authorities in China. For example, a mandatory recycling scheme targeting large unwanted furniture and home appliances was introduced in Shenzhen starting in 2018. Critically, the scheme is vigorously enforced by the local urban management bureau. Failure to abide by proper recycling procedures may reduce credit scores for companies and individuals. The latter indicates the strong commitment of the Chinese government to ensure the pervasive effective adoption of sustainability in Chinese society.
Optimistically, ‘Circular Furniture’ is currently being experimented with in Hong Kong. For example, Circular furniture has been donated to local charities, universities, and schools, including YHS School, AI Lab, HKUST, HKU, Teen’s Key and ImpactHK. Notably, by collaborating with property developers, office designers, and project managers, Sustainable Office Solutions has launched an initiative to supply circular furniture and sustainably manage office assets of incoming and outgoing tenants. However, there is still significant scope for improvement to increase circular furniture’s use in Hong Kong.
In this context, the imminent implementation of the Municipal Solid Waste charging scheme in Hong Kong serves as an ideal catalyst for systemic change and action in Hong Kong. The scheme provides Hong Kong with a unique opportunity to rethink how we perceive and manage items we no longer use.
On the individual level, households should always evaluate the condition of unwanted furniture or appliances to determine whether such items can be donated or redistributed before disposing of them. Additionally, families should strive to procure furniture/appliances that are sustainably designed for longevity.
For corporates, businesses should consider the real long term and ‘soft’ benefits of embracing circular furniture. The latter refers to wider positive ramifications, such as reputation or credibility, that the use of circular products could bring.
Correspondingly, there should be a strong commitment by the government to promote and enforce policies advocating circular furniture.. Incentives should also encourage businesses to choose circular furniture products. For example, attractive tax reduction schemes or government subsidies for companies that recycle a significant proportion of their furniture during renovation and purchase circular furniture products afterwards.
Hence, a broader shift in social and cultural attitudes towards the notion of ‘recycling’ is required in Hong Kong, akin to Mainland and Europe. Rather than perceiving ‘recycling’ as a burden or distraction, which appears to be the case for many in Hong Kong, ‘recycling’ should be recognized as a way of life with real positive benefits that all can immediately experience. Thereof substantially increases the cogency of the above actions that individuals, corporates and authorities can take.
Originally published on Orange News on 10 Jun 2022. Written by Lawrence Iu.