HK Profile: Lisa Christensen, founder of EcoVision Asia

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It was 1999 and, somewhere in the hills above Hong Kong, outdoor enthusiast Lisa Christensen from Canada was training for the MacLehose Challenge. While trekking throughout the New Territories, Christensen realised how dirty Hong Kong’s unmanaged beaches really were. “The beaches look so great from afar – but they’re far from great,” as she puts it. “It was a shock to me; I was driven. I just had to do something.”

Later that year, Christensen took part in an International Coastal Cleanup event with her friend (and current Under Secretary for the Environment) Christine Loh. “I was blown away by the sheer amount of plastic all over the beaches,” Christensen recalls with sadness. Loh invited Christensen to take over the annual cleanup project in 2000, prompting Christensen to quit her job as a sports marketer and dive headfirst into Hong Kong’s waste problem. In that year, she founded the environmental awareness organisation EcoVision Asia, which is behind Hong Kong Cleanup. That first beach cleanup had 45 volunteers. Fast-forward 13 years, and that number has reached 40,000. “The amount of volunteers is evidence of how much people care,” she says. 

Yet despite massive interest from the public, Christensen quickly realised that it wasn’t going to be easy to mobilise thousands of Hongkongers to some of the more far-flung beaches. So she expanded the concept to also include a city and country park cleanup. “The city cleanup isn’t just about the streets; it’s about cleaning up offices, homes and schools. I think we need to look at where our rubbish is coming from. If you reduce the amount of trash you’re throwing out by 50 percent, you can be damn sure a lot of that is not going to end up on our beaches,” Christensen emphatically explains, pointing out that a lot of rubbish ends up getting washed down storm drains in the city, ending up at the shore. 

The ever-active Christensen is training for a triathlon, so she regularly swims in Hong Kong’s seas – and experiences first-hand the bleak flotillas of rubbish that accumulate there. 

“I definitely go through a range of emotions when I swim through the rubbish… from disgust, to despair, to anger, to [being] upset, to [having a] passion to be driven to do something about it!” Christensen’s approach to the situation is certainly laudable. “What I do is I just shove the plastic in my bathing suit and take it back to the beach,” she says, matter-of-factly. 

While a lot of the plastic and rubbish that ends up on our beaches is predictable, some truly bizarre finds are part-and-parcel of the annual cleanup. “We found a prosthetic leg, all kinds of lingerie, a lot of appliances, toilet seats, barbecues, a taxi door – every single thing imaginable!” Christensen says with a laugh. “That’s one of our competitions – find the weirdest thing.”

Yet, it hasn’t always been a smooth journey for this green-living lady. “I had a little bit of a dark period around 2003,” she recalls. “My dad got cancer and was sick for a few years before he died. He was my mentor and I didn’t handle things very well. At that time, SARS hit, and I also had a shitty breakup.” But Christensen managed to ride out the storm, and emerged with a clearer focus. “I came out the other side, I guess, happier and more committed than ever. I wanted to inspire others to persevere, and be positive and optimistic.”

If optimism is Christensen’s goal, she’s certainly achieving it. Hong Kong Cleanup has spawned many local eco-movements, including Living Lamma and DB Green. “It’s creating a civic movement of people. It’s awe-inspiring,” she enthuses. “I think the future [of the environment] is really bright in Hong Kong. It’s one of my pet peeves when people point the finger at the government or industry. It has to be every single person in every single level of society being responsible. And I think that’s happening.” Anna Cummins

Hong Kong Cleanup Sep 21-Nov 1. To get involved, visit hkcleanup.org

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