For the longest of times, I was afraid to ask questions.
Perhaps this was due to how uncomfortable my mother would make people feel whenever she would approach them with rather unexpected and unusual inquiries, awkwardly standing still until they would find the will to either answer or walk away without a word like they didn’t give a 💩 (many of them would often choose the latter). But what I found inspiring about it was how she never shied away from asking questions.
Her curiosity — although misplaced at times — seemed to bring immense satisfaction to her thirst for knowledge and understanding of the world. And it was this curiosity that I found to be one of the most impactful personality traits that one can have.
As consumers on an ever-growing quest to find the most convenience in everything we come across and do, we have unconsciously lost our flair for understanding how and why things are done the way they are. I found this to hold particularly true while attempting to make sense of Hong Kong’s recycling processes (or the lack thereof) both at a governmental/collective level as well as individually.
Fortunate to work for a company that cares heavily about reducing our carbon footprint, I was curious to know what happens to our trash and asked our sustainability team for further information. When I was told that our company contracts a third party organization to recycle our sorted items, I followed up with another question: “How do you know they actually do it?” I was baffled to hear that the person I was talking to did not have an answer to this, and said that she would “get back to me as soon as possible”.
I grew more curious to understand what happens to the trash we dispose of in public containers scattered around the city, and what I quickly unearthed was how very little to zero information people had about where their junk actually goes. A few Google searches quickly helped remedy the situation.
I did my part, now it’s their problem
Circling back to the issue of convenience, there’s a growing misbelief that all of Hong Kong’s public trash gets properly sorted and recycled accordingly, leaving a staggering majority of citizens feeling confident that their take-out coffee cups and other plastic/paper trash is rightfully taken care of. Sadly, this could not be further from the truth as Hong Kong does not have any paper recycling or manufacturing plants, and mainland China no longer accepts our to-be-recycled junk.
So where does it go?
This knowledge surfaced when I began asking the simplest questions, both to myself and friends (un)familiar with the matter: “Do you know where our stuff actually goes?” This is most often followed by “Uhh… Not really.” And despite our lack of awareness, we seem to have become content with not seeking further information. I began finding answers after a short Google search:
“We don’t recycle paper, we just ship it to someone else and what they do with it is up to them.” — Peter Kammerer, South China Morning Post
I see people eat their lunch at fast-service restaurants with plastic cutlery and soup boxes that they rid themselves of within 15 minutes and add on to a pile of previously-discarded trash. I’ve asked some of them if they were aware of where their trash goes. Unsurprisingly, many of them affirmed they did not, despite being aware of their environmental impact.
As another example — while this may be common knowledge to many — I was personally unaware of our inability to recycle plastic cups due to the combination of paper and practically-irremovable plastic films that allow coffee to remain contained, as well as the chemicals from your drink that make its container contaminated. I was told of this issue when I second-guessed my decision to put my coffee cup in our paper recycling bin and Googled “Are plastic cups recyclable?”
It’s not just about recycling
I look at this as a more general problem that affects society as a whole. Transformative changes can be easily made when individual efforts drive collective action. Moving away from the more competitive business concept of withholding information from others to gain leverage, people with access to important knowledge are in a life-changing position to educate their peers and empower them to make a change of their own, who will then be subsequently encouraged to educate their own peers on similar information. This eventually leads to a domino effect that started with a few simple questions: “Why?” “How?” “Where?” “Who?” “When?”
I was reminded of the power of curiosity a few weeks ago when I attended a CreativeMornings talk on water, where the founder of a new water dispenser company shared insights with an environmentally-conscious audience early on a Friday. Left between purchasing single-use plastic water bottles and drinking tap water (with or without filter), this founder was on a mission to provide high-quality, safe water to children and communities throughout Hong Kong with her company’s dispensers.
Upon using the device, a digital screen communicates a message that many would normally find reassuring: “Your water is safe”. The first thing that came to mind was: “How do I know it’s safe?” If I were to recommend this dispenser to a friend, he or she would most definitely ask a similar question and force me to answer: “Well, the dispenser told me it is…”
Let’s be curious again
Successful entrepreneurs live to solve problems by continuously asking questions and challenging the status quo. But it doesn’t have to be all about business… The thought of educating my friends, family, colleagues and other acquaintances on information that I believe they would benefit from drives my desire to learn more, hoping that in one way or another, this information will impact their lives and those of others.
To quote the great and wise Lucius Annaeus Seneca:
“Nothing will ever please me, no matter how excellent or beneficial if I must retain the knowledge of it to myself. And if wisdom were given me under the express condition that it must be kept hidden and not uttered, I should refuse it. No good thing is pleasant to possess, without friends to share it.” — Tao of Seneca, Letter 6: “On Sharing Knowledge”
So, tell me… What’s on your mind?