Opinion | Lack of clarity sets up Hong Kong’s environmental plans for disaster

Opinion | Lack of clarity sets up Hong Kong’s environmental plans for disaster

Opinion | Lack of clarity sets up Hong Kong’s environmental plans for disaster

When it comes to managing our waste, Hong Kong has been a bit of a muddled mess for the past decade, and it looks likely to get worse in the coming months.

With hotels and restaurants set to face a ban in just three weeks on many single-use plastics and the controversial pay-as-you-throw waste charging scheme expected to launch in August, we could be set for a summer of confusion and controversy. When so many other parts of the world seem to be making much smoother progress, one has to ask why we are finding this essential shift to a low-carbon world so difficult.

Look at Germany, a global leader in managing waste, and the contrast with Hong Kong is striking. Germany creates more municipal waste per person than Hong Kong – 632kg per person compared with 551kg here – but the amount it dumps in landfills is negligible. Around 50 per cent is recycled, around 30 per cent incinerated and less than 1 per cent ends up in landfills.

It has succeeded not because it has dramatically slashed the levels of per-capita waste. Rather, progress has come because the government has got to grips with the waste chain, from effective separation of waste before it leaves a consumer’s home to creating an easy-to-understand waste disposal infrastructure that successfully diverts waste before it needs to reach a landfill.

By comparison, about 70 per cent of Hong Kong’s daily municipal waste of 5.74 million tonnes still ends up in landfills. There is little separation at home. The waste collection chain is confusing and often inconvenient. A muddle of “polluter pays” rules and private sector involvement has left us discarding as much waste today as we did half a decade ago.

Here in Asia, South Korea also puts us to shame. Per-capita waste has been brought down to 400kg per year. With about 60 per cent now recycled and 20 per cent incinerated, only about 11 per cent of their waste reaches the landfill.

Glass recycle bins in Berlin, Germany, are covered with prints of large faces wearing surgical face masks, seen in April 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic. Germany is a global leader in managing waste. Photo: EPA-EFE
My own suspicion is that our poor progress starts with a muddle over objectives. Elsewhere, the strategic rationale has been single-mindedly to cut waste. For many, this has been the only measure of progress. They have also acknowledged that management of waste is one of the most fundamental of municipal obligations.
As taxpayers, we know such services will ultimately have to be paid for out of our taxes. We simply ask for the infrastructure to be professionally built, efficient and to function as invisibly as possible. We in Hong Kong regard essential infrastructure as an inescapable responsibility of government. Where this iron rule has been bent – as in the case of electricity and our mass transit railway system – we have made it clear that we demand engineering excellence and very strong ground rules on performance obligations.

With waste management, we appear to have been left to drift in an obscure middle ground where the excellence and integrity of the infrastructure are not ensured and performance obligations are invisible.

Tinkering around with charges for variable garbage bag sizes imposes charges that are add-ons to the rates and taxes we already pay. Aren’t these rates and taxes intended to fund essential municipal services in the first place? In doing this, the government is not only causing upset and confusion but allowing itself to be distracted from the core challenge in hand: creating a system that deals seamlessly with the waste we create and setting regulations that incentivise us to minimise waste and pass it to our waste managers so they can handle it as efficiently as possible.
Sample designated bags for the waste charging scheme are seen at a promotional event held by a school in Hong Kong’s Yau Ma Tei district on January 16. The bags will be available in nine different sizes from three litres (0.79 gallons) up to 100 litres. Photo: Eugene Lee
There are other priorities. We should force suppliers – whether they are supermarkets or vendors of household goods – to deliver products that create the minimum environmental hassle. That means supermarkets not using plastic packaging or selling us water in bottles that we cannot return.
It means the companies that vie to sell us microwaves, smartphones or ceiling lights must agree to take them back – and promise to properly recycle them – once they fail or reach the end of their natural lives. This is basic “circular economy” stuff that we have talked about for decades but on which we have seen frustratingly little progress.

Hong Kong food waste recycling drive trips over lack of bins, rules confusion

We should insist that developers – whether of residential high-rises, office towers or shopping centres – integrate essential waste separation facilities into their projects. These include composting infrastructure that consumes our food waste and rewards us with methane for heating and lush fertiliser for our flower beds and gardens.
Schools, universities and major event venues should have similar composting facilities to deal with food waste at the source. Mega-event organisers should be required to invest in similar waste-handling facilities, albeit on a temporary basis, as a precondition for arranging any event.


SCMP Explains: How does Hong Kong handle its waste?

SCMP Explains: How does Hong Kong handle its waste?

To ensure we have the critical mass of waste to justify heavy investment in incinerators and large-scale recycling hubs, we should be collaborating closely with our Greater Bay Area neighbours. A city of 7.3 million people might be too small to justify such big infrastructure items, but if we look at the regional community of 86 million people as a whole, we surely have the demand to justify the best waste management facilities that technology can deliver.
Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu said last week that it was too early to judge whether his government’s controversial waste management plans should be delayed beyond August. My own answer would be clear: his present plans amount to shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic. Without greater strategic clarity, icebergs undoubtedly loom. A well-used delay might be a smart idea.

David Dodwell is CEO of the trade policy and international relations consultancy Strategic Access, focused on developments and challenges facing the Asia-Pacific over the past four decades

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