HK scrambles to avert looming crisis on waste

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 January, 2011, 12:00am

Officials are scrambling to find ways to head off an imminent wastedisposal crisis.

This comes after the government abandoned its widely unpopular proposal to extend a landfill into a country park that almost touched off a legal battle over the powers of the executive and legislature.

It has also decided not to seek a judicial review of the powers of lawmakers who voted in October to repeal a chief executive's order allowing the five-hectare expansion of the Tseung Kwan O tip into Clear Water Bay Country Park.

While the constitutional crisis is avoided, the decision has spurred environmental officials to look for ways to avert the possible painful consequences of the decision in a city that still relies mainly on three landfills - all expected to be full by the end of the decade - for waste disposal.

Announcing the decisions after the regular Executive Council meeting, Chief Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen said the government had decided against a legal challenge in the interest of maintaining good relationships with lawmakers.

Secretary for the Environment Edward Yau Tang-wah said it was necessary to press ahead urgently with the waste reduction, recycling and disposal plans on the table or being planned, and all of them were needed to resolve the crisis.

'No doubt it is the responsibility of the current term of the government and it is all about handling the crisis,' Yau said.

He said the time had come for public discussion of a waste charge, which should have been introduced in 2007 under the previous policy. But he was unable to offer a clear timetable for introducing the charge, citing the difficulty of collecting it in Hong Kong's high-rise society.

Environmentalists cast doubt on the effectiveness of the plans, criticising the lack of details and a timetable.

Baptist University waste management specialist Dr Chung Shan-shan said she hoped the waste levy would be introduced by this administration.

'The waste problem will get worse if the levy is left to the next administration,' she said.

The expansion of the landfill will still go ahead on land outside the park but the loss of the country park land will cut by almost two-thirds the 17 million cubic metres of space that the full extension would have provided, to just 6.5 million cubic metres.

Planned expansion of the two other landfills, in Tuen Mun and North District, will go ahead.

In a move to reduce the smell endured by people living nearby who have opposed the expansion, only construction waste will be dumped at the Tseung Kwan O landfill, while up to 2,200 tonnes of domestic waste now dumped there daily will be diverted to the other two.

Meanwhile, sites deemed suitable for a waste incinerator, designed to burn 3,000 tonnes of waste a day, will be made public in March.

Depending on waste generation and recovery progress, officials would not rule out the possibility that incinerators might be built on both of the two short-listed sites - Tsang Tsui in Tuen Mun, which can be built by 2016, and Shek Kwu Chau by 2018.

Yau also plans to extend the 50-cent plastic bag levy to cover all retail outlets, which might be allowed to keep the money. He said the public would be consulted on this, including the exemptions to be given.

He also pledged to outline a plan for charging for disposal and recycling of waste electrical and electronic equipment this and next year.

The city will also aim to lift the waste recycling rate from the current 49 to 55 per cent of municipal solid waste by 2015 by setting up waste recovery centres in each of the 18 districts. On-site kitchen waste recycling at shopping malls or housing estates will also be promoted.

But these additional recycling efforts are expected to divert just 1,000 tonnes of waste a day away from landfills by 2015, when it is forecast that at least 11,500 tonnes of waste might still be dumped.

Chung of Baptist University said she was disappointed with the measures as they came too late and the government had avoided the waste-reduction target.

She said the government had proposed a target to reduce waste by 1 per cent each year from 2005 until 2014 but it was never achieved. 'The bureau has avoided the real issue and stresses the recycling rate, which is much easier to achieve.'

Solely increasing the recycling rate was not going to help, she said. 'What's the meaning of it if the amount of waste continues to rise? It only means recycling more waste.'

She said limiting the Tseung Kwan O landfill to construction waste would only increase the loading of two other landfills and the disturbance to residents. 'Is it fair to residents living near the two landfills? Should they face more nuisances just because their voice is smaller than those in Tseung Kwan O?'

Wong Wai-yim, vice-chairman of the Ta Kwu Ling rural committee, said the proposed measure was unfair to their villages. 'We are unhappy about it. We should be given the same treatment, though we have less bargaining power.'

Sai Kung district councillor Christine Fong Kwok-shan said the government had made a wise decision to give up the judicial review.

But she said residents of Lohas Park would still object to the extension, even though it would receive only construction waste.

'Can you imagine 2,000 trucks with debris and mud driving through the town centre?'

Green Power chief executive Man Chi-sum urged the government to give a timetable for the levy. 'This is an effective economic incentive to reduce waste,' he said. 'If an incinerator is to be built, the government should at least ensure the waste is reduced and sorted.'

Friends of the Earth said the waste strategy was just words on paper, as it lacked a timetable and procedures to implement it.