Fill bad factor

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 March, 2006, 12:00am

EVA LAU SUK-FONG prefers shrink-wrapped groceries from her supermarket. 'They're cleaner,' she says. Lau, a 40-year-old mother of two, started buying most of her shopping at supermarkets about five years ago and these days fills six to seven plastic bags of shopping a day.

Her family's garbage has also been growing noticeably, too - it's now reaching as much as 4.5kg a day. And like most Hong Kong households, it all goes in the bin.

'I never put rubbish [out] for recycling because it's too troublesome to separate items and take them to recycling bins,' says Lau, who lives in Oi Man Estate, Ho Man Tin, with her husband Leung Yau-keung, 42, and their two daughters Amy, 11, and Sharon, nine. Like many households, they don't think about where their rubbish goes.

It goes to a landfill, like everyone else's. Each night, the Leung family's waste is loaded into a truck for a one-hour drive to a vast West Kowloon transfer station in Lai Chi Kok. There, it's compressed into blocks the size of a small office space (about 40.7 cubic metres) and loaded onto floating barges and taken on a four-hour journey to the 110-hectare Nim Wan landfill in Tuen Mun, the largest of Hong Kong's three facilities.

Thirteen years ago, it was a beautiful bay. Today it's the final resting place for one-third of Hong Kong's rubbish: 6,600 tonnes of waste arrive daily from Kowloon, Hong Kong Island and the outlying islands.

The grassless slope looks like any other hillside under construction. Underneath, staff say, is rubbish piled four storeys high.

When the rubbish containers arrive, they're dumped into one or more pits, each the size of a football pitch. Once filled, the waste is covered with earth and topped with plastic sheets to reduce the stench.

Nearby, fat crows fight each other for scraps. On higher ground, drivers wear masks and keep their windows closed while they manoeuvre their bulldozers into place, ready to compact the waste. 'Some labourers have respiratory problems,' says one.

Bags of rubbish and plastic dot the site. A closer look reveals fast-food boxes, a lemon tea bottles, detergent bottles, mobile-phone covers and mattresses.

Environmentalists say Hong Kong's ballooning waste will soon cause serious problems - polluted water, contaminated food, for instance - some of which will be felt by the households that dumped the rubbish.

'People think that once they dump the rubbish into landfills, it's not their problem,' says Edwin Lau Che-feng, assistant director of Friends of the Earth (Hong Kong). 'But it can come back to haunt us.' Leaks from landfills can contaminate groundwater and the marine environment, and eventually fish stocks, he says. Corroding metal in discarded batteries, circuit boards and computers yield heavy metals such as mercury, lead and copper.

Plastic is everywhere. In a year, the pits swallow more than 590,000 tonnes of it. And in a day, they take in about 1,000 tonnes of plastic bags, alone. As well, there's more than 2,200 tonnes of paper, and more than 330 tonnes of glass.

Households contribute 40 per cent of all waste dumped in Hong Kong's three landfills - that's 7,000 tonnes a day. Environmentalists say half of domestic waste is potentially recyclable, but only 14 per cent of local households send anything to a recycling station. In South Korea, 47 per cent of households recycle. In Taipei, the rate is 35 per cent. Singaporeans are only slightly ahead of Hong Kong: 21 per cent of its households recycle. With waste generation, the opposite is true. Each Hongkonger generates an average of 1.35kg of waste per day, beating South Korea, Singapore and Taipei hands down.

Hong Kong's waste problem is more acute than the rest of the world except perhaps Singapore, because of its size. The three landfills dug in the early 1990s - with a combined capacity of 135 million cubic metres - were expected to last two to three decades. They're now forecast to reach capacity within six to 10 years.

The government spent $6 billion on building the landfills. Every year it pays an extra $1.1 billion to treat and manage the waste. Once the sites close, it will have to spend $1.2 billion on repair and maintenance. Environmentalists say some of that money would be better spent tackling the problem of waste generation. They say that at least part of the solution lies in encouraging people to minimise waste and recycle. That also means buying less.

Hong Kong doesn't have a bad record of recycling - 40 per cent of all waste is reused in some form. The city has recycling facilities for glass, paper, plastics, rubber tyres, textiles, wood, electrical goods, electronics and metals. However, much of the material that ends up in landfills - mainly domestic waste - could have been recycled.

Some blame the absence of an extensive recycling network. Hong Kong has about 28,000 recycling bins for just under seven million people. Others blame the lack of a proper recycling industry. Limited storage facilities, and high rental, transportation and labour costs all create obstacles for recyclers.

The government says the EcoPark recycling centre in Tuen Mun will prove to be a boon. But environmentalists say it's too far for private contractors and that transportation costs will doom it to failure.

Besides producer responsibility schemes and landfill disposal bans, the government plans to introduce disposal charges to reduce waste. There are also proposals to turn food waste into compost at a giant recycling plant. And it is considering building what could be the world's largest incinerator.

The Environmental Protection Department says an incinerator won't affect recycling, but green groups say that a big one will. Environmentalist are worried that an incinerator will delay recycling movements. They also fear that mistakes in managing the facility might expose people to toxic emissions such as dioxins.

If Hong Kong doesn't reduce the growth in waste it will have to find 400 hectares of land to build new landfills. Even so, they are forecast to be used up by 2030.