The long night begins for Lee Wing-shan just when the grand banquet comes to an end.
For more than six months, the 28-year-old has been spending most weekend nights alone, washing dozens of dishes in a small office pantry borrowed from a friend.
“I had my doubts; I wondered how I could carry on with this business,” says Lee, who founded We-Use in 2016. The dishware rental company provides reusable cutlery and tableware for events such as banquets, fairs and marathons, delivering the items and also cleaning.
Having started off buying about 100 sets of ceramic cutlery at the cost of nearly HK$10,000 (US$1,274), Lee’s business has burgeoned as Hong Kong companies become more environmentally conscious.
Now We-Use is capable of hosting events with more than 8,000 people and receives 20 to 50 orders a month. Its tableware sets, mostly ceramic and glass, were rented out 270,000 times last year, an almost fivefold increase on 2017.
As the business grew, the company developed a partnership with truck drivers and a dishwashing company. It also hired housewives from underprivileged families to clean at the warehouse.
But things have not always gone smoothly.
With only one order a month, We-Use was a single woman business in its early days, with Lee handling promotion, deliveries and cleaning on her own. All while holding down a full-time job.
“I didn’t have my own place to do the dishes, and couldn’t afford a helper. I thought of giving up when I had to deal with everything alone,” she recalls.
A strong advocate of recycling, Lee was inspired to start a dishware rental business after seeing the amount of disposable waste left after corporate events.
“The idea was brand new in Hong Kong,” she explains. “When I went to exhibitions [to promote the company], people were confused about what I was doing – and some still are.”
Despite a rocky start, Lee chose to stick to it because she “can always see potential in this service”.
“I kept thinking: if only the company were bigger with higher service capacity!”
Lee was barely wrong in terms of this vision, according to her long-term friend Annie Yeung On-ni. A former employee of an environmental protection NGO, Yeung joined We-Use as business manager six months ago, as she found it a “down-to-earth” solution to Hong Kong’s plastic waste crisis.
A government report in 2017 showed that more than 2,100 tonnes of plastic per day are dumped in landfills in the city, accounting for one-fifth of all urban solid waste. Recycling of plastic material, however, dropped to 13 per cent the same year.
In 2016, environmental group Green Earth estimated 5.2 million plastic bottles were thrown away in Hong Kong every day, weighing 136 tonnes.
“I used to do education projects to raise public awareness, but then I felt I needed something more practical, more real,” Yeung says. “Now it’s like, one more plate or cup I rent out, it’s one effort more I make to reduce plastic waste.”
According to Yeung, the essence of hosting a successful We-Use event lies in getting the message through to attendees: these things need to be returned.
“The signage has to be noticeable, and rules have to be clearly explained. Otherwise it’s so easy for people to get lazy,” the 29-year-old explains.
“I once saw a marathon runner throw his cup into the grass and, of course, we couldn’t chase after him,” Yeung explains. “The worst case I’ve seen is a bowl that was scarred by a cigarette butt. It hurt me when I saw it.”
But Yeung and Lee are still optimistic about the future of plastic waste reduction in Hong Kong, noting people are becoming more conscious of the environment.
“It is a trend now,” Lee says. “Corporations want to show they are making the effort to protect the environment and people are gradually developing the habit of using non-disposables.
“The whole atmosphere is changing. And we certainly want to be part of it.”