No-can-do spirit

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 July, 2008, 12:00am

Sven Svensson is a waste management expert from Sweden who has come to Hong Kong to help. He has heard that our landfills will be full in a matter of years and believes the recycling ideas that have been used to such praise in his homeland will work here. Since arriving a month ago, he has been knocking on the doors of officialdom, to little effect. Given the scale of the problem our city faces, he is perplexed at the lack of enthusiasm.

The Swede is not the only one frustrated by the attitude. There is no shortage of people in our city who share his love of the environment and his desire to protect it from the ravages of 21st-century consumerism. Having also encountered unhelpful officials, they have shrugged their shoulders and got on with their own projects. There are dozens of these under way, a handful with government assistance, the majority of people doing their best with the thought that, one day, they might get noticed.

Such people do not want to go on the record for fear of burning potential bridges. But, under the cloak of anonymity, they can be vicious with their criticism. They point out how government inaction is harming our image and future; that even the most simple concepts of being responsible towards the environment are being ignored. The solutions, they point out, are simple and, in most instances, will cost the government nothing to implement.

Sweden is a far cry from Hong Kong. Of the world's 241 regions, Hong Kong ranks fourth in terms of population density compared to Sweden's 195th. Swedes are never far from forests or farms; with forestry for wood and paper one of the major industries, and living so close to nature, they are mindful of the need for environmental protection. Columbia and Yale universities' widely recognised Environmental Performance Index ranked Sweden joint second with Norway in its latest survey of 151 countries. Switzerland was placed first and China 105th; Hong Kong was not ranked. Sweden is one of the few countries on track to meet its Kyoto Protocol targets on emissions.

Mr Svensson realises that engendering the love he has for the environment in people surrounded by so much concrete will not come easily. He is a firm believer in education; a process that he realises will take time and, in Hong Kong's case, will take effect too late to significantly stem the flow of rubbish pouring into landfills. The close co-operation between government and people in Sweden will not happen, either, without an administration that is elected and is therefore responsible to the people it serves.

Yet all is far from lost. From talking to environmentally involved residents, it is clear that the solution hinges on government will. Or, perhaps that should read: administrators who have more interest in the people they claim to govern than in not rocking the boat so they can have an easy path to promotion and a healthy pension. There can be no other reason why people with good ideas are going away from government offices without encouragement, assistance or support.

What our leaders, lawmakers and civil servants need to do is no secret. Put simply, it is action - now; or, more specifically, mandatory laws. These would implement fees for waste disposal, fines for those who do not comply, a policing mechanism and incentives for recycling projects.

The ideas are not new. Waste disposal fees have been discussed by authorities for eight years. There are a host of small recycling projects under way; their flaw, though, is that they are voluntary. Without legally binding rules, as in Sweden and other places where recycling is second nature, only those of us who understand the strains we are putting on our surroundings will make an effort.

Unless Mr Svensson gets officials interested in his ideas, he will have to turn to starting a pilot scheme in an effort to make a small difference. Authorities may or may not take notice; it took them five years to come on board with a privately run recycling scheme at housing estates. Then again, he may get drawn away to the mainland, where there is no shortage of governments with waste problems and the resolve and ability to get things done quickly.

Peter Kammerer is the Post's foreign editor