GPS pinpoints answer to illegal waste dumping

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 January, 2011, 12:00am

Building associations, construction companies and waste removal groups are investigating a new way to control the illegal dumping of construction waste - global positioning systems.

They say that by installing GPS equipment on dump trucks that move construction waste around the city, any illicit activities will come to light almost instantly or be halted before they have any legal or public image fallout.

The government already requires these systems to be installed on mud-dumping vessels and barges taking Hong Kong's bulk construction waste to the mainland's ever-expanding reclamation sites. But it remains uncertain if they will really take off on the road.

For one thing, the main players - the contractors and truck drivers - are split over who should take the first step.

The Hong Kong Construction Association (HKCA), which represents about 300 contractors, is exploring the system, which it believes could be an effective tool to reverse the tide of illegal dumping. But it says its hands are tied when it comes to promoting the method.

'We are positive about this ... but we cannot compel individual companies to use it or interfere in how the market works,' HKCA secretary general Thomas Tse Che-wah said. 'That's why we also recommended to the dump truck drivers union that its members install the device on a voluntary basis, but so far no agreement has been reached.'

Different GPS suppliers are already offering various fleet management and location tracking solutions, with some providing services at a monthly fee of about HK$300, including the transmitter box and an online platform the users can log into for data.

It is estimated that more than 6,000 vehicles in the logistics business, particularly couriers and some cross-border trucks, are already equipped with the systems.

But as far as the construction industry is concerned, the use of GPS started only fairly recently, with the focus on heavy machinery deployed at construction sites.

It is understood that none of the city's 2,000 dump trucks, overwhelmingly owned and operated by individuals, can be pinpointed, despite their notorious track records in some well-known illegal dumping cases. The Hong Kong Dumper Truck Drivers' Association, which represents about half the city's dump truck drivers and operators, said it was receptive to the system, which it said could also provide proof in chasing unpaid wages and fuel expenses. It was even willing to pay for it, but there was a major stumbling block.

Instead of giving drivers a competitive edge, association head Chan Sam-choi feared drivers who chose to install the system might be discriminated against by some contractors who would refuse to hire them.

'There are vested interests in the industry that benefit from the obscurity of existing operations,' Chan said. 'After all, we are only the drivers who follow the employers' orders on where to dump the waste.

'If the contractors really want it, they can simply put that as a tender requirement and then every one of us will make the effort to install the system and meet the requirements.'

Both sides have been in touch since last year about the possibility of fitting location tracking devices on dump trucks, following a spate of illegal dumping cases in recent years that spoiled green areas in the New Territories.

Calls for more regulations on waste flow grew after farmland at Ho Sheung Heung was illegally filled with excavated materials and construction waste from a government cemetery work site managed by Chun Wo Construction and Engineering last year. And the recent unauthorised dumping on a green belt zone at Hung Shui Kiu in Yuen Long further exposed the problems when private construction sites manage their waste and transport operators abuse the monitoring system.

In that case, all the 5,600 truckloads of excavated materials coming from a Chinachem and Chevalier construction site in Siu Lam were supposed to go to Henderson Land's Wo Sang Wai housing development site. But most of this was actually dumped somewhere else and the developer and contractor appeared to know nothing about it until they were approached by the South China Morning Post.

It was not until the companies went through the journey records of the trucks that they found their subcontractors might have abused the system by forging documents of delivery records.

In fact, it is not uncommon for private construction sites to transfer these materials among themselves, a move that they say not only helps material reuse but can save costs of dumping in government-run facilities, which charge HK$27 to HK$125 per tonne.

In some cases, materials coming from a particular site were immediately matched with another site in need of the materials, the association said. But these private transfers are not subject to any government regulations, leaving contractors to decide what they want to do with the waste, as long as no laws are broken.

And unlike public works projects, contractors of private projects are not required to implement a trip-ticket system - a recording system designed to ensure waste from one place is properly moved and deposited in another. But even with a proper trip-ticket system in place, there are still incentives for some to cheat, given the lucrative nature of the waste dumping business.

In 2009, the government collected up to HK$170 million in fees for dumping a total of 14 million tonnes of fill material or inert construction waste, such as rocks or concrete, at its reception or sorting facilities.

'It is a profitable business,' Chan said.

'Some might choose to cut short trips and dump the waste mid-way at unauthorised sites to save transport costs or dumping fees.

'In some cases, the waste transporters are even paid to dump, but with a GPS system, all these hidden benefits would be gone.'

Thomas Ho On-sing, chief executive of Gammon Construction, the biggest builder in Hong Kong, said equipping dump trucks with GPS required more in-depth studies to resolve the administrative difficulties, such as how and by whom trucks were tracked and who would pay for it.

He said that until these difficulties were resolved, it was too early to say whether making GPS a standard requirement for dump trucks in works contracts was preferable to extending a trip-ticket system to major private construction sites.

'You need someone to monitor the truck and someone has to stop the truck if anything goes wrong, too,' said Ho, who is also an appointed member to the official Construction Industry Council (CIC) advising the government on worksite issues. 'Technically it is sound, but administratively it is more complicated.'

To minimise the risks of illegal dumping, Gammon, which does not own a dump truck fleet, has a policy of not throwing any fill materials on other private construction sites. It also requires its contractors to move the materials to government-run facilities such as landfills and public fills.

The MTR Corporation, a major developer, also said it did not require contractors to provide dump trucks with GPS but it was implementing a trip-ticket system to prevent illegal dumping.

Owen Leung Ka-lai, a business development manager at Autotoll, which has been in talks with both HKCA and the drivers union, said there were more political obstacles than technical problems in installing GPS on trucks.

'There are no technical problems at all,' Leung said.

'It is a lot simpler to do it on the trucks than courier fleets. But it is politically difficult as the main issues are who is going to pay and whether the operators can adapt to the new system.'

He said the system would not only help locate vehicles, monitor their journeys and determine whether they had reached the pre-arranged destination, but in the long term, it could also help with job dispatching and even assist in payment and fuel cost calculations.

A spokesman for the Environmental Protection Department said the CIC was looking into the applicability of GPS. The council would also issue guidelines on a trip-ticket system that the private sector could adopt voluntarily in the first half of this year.

'The CIC will review its implementation and, if necessary, it might consider whether a mandatory system is required,' the spokesman said.

He also said the trip-ticket systems implemented in public works projects were 'very effective' in preventing illegal dumping and therefore the government had no plans to require GPS to be used in public works contracts.