Can we dispose of our growing waste problem?

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 September, 2016, 8:46am

An incredible 13,300 tonnes of waste goes into Hong Kong landfills per day. That's right: every day. Some 9,000 tonnes is municipal solid waste, meaning the leftovers from homes and businesses, including 3,300 tonnes of food. Construction waste accounts for another 3,200 tonnes.

This is a looming crisis. The Legislative Council's move last year to bar the government from extending a major landfill into Clear Water Bay Country Park may have been understandable from an environmental point of view. But it means that, on present trends, our main means of waste disposal has no future beyond 2018.

It might be alarmist to talk of rubbish piling up in the streets, but what will we do about all this waste? The government has identified a combination of solutions that could help us avoid a crisis in 2018, but each one has difficulties.

One solution is organic processing of food waste, and incineration. Although these systems can generate fertiliser and electricity, they are unpopular. Modern incinerators are supposed to meet high emissions standards, but they produce ash, so we will still need some new landfill capacity somewhere. Officials say we will need at least one big incinerator capable of handling 3,000 tonnes a day. The numbers suggest two.

It will take years before they can go into operation, and you can guarantee that these facilities will be controversial among communities expected to host them.

Another solution is recycling. But here is another surprise: for every one of those 9,000 tonnes of municipal solid waste going into landfills, we already recycle another tonne. We are better than the international average in this regard. We can do more, and the government is working with housing estates, malls, the electronics sector, schools, restaurants and other groups to raise recycling rates. The target is to raise the current 49 per cent to 55 per cent by 2015.

With other measures, including new organic and sludge treatment facilities, we could get our landfill waste down to 11,500 tonnes a day by that year.

There is one more solution, and most of us would probably agree that, in theory, it is ideal: reduce the amount of waste we produce in the first place. We have made a start with plastic bags and, as with recycling, the government is working with industries and groups to cut down on things like packaging and servings of food we do not need.

In order to really tackle the problem, however, everyone needs to change their behaviour. This means incentives to cut waste and, if we are to be honest, this essentially means penalties for not doing it - in other words, municipal solid waste charging.

This follows the principle of 'polluter pays'. The more rubbish you produce, the more you should pay to have it taken away and disposed of. Fix the charges high enough, and it will persuade people, families and companies to reduce waste significantly. People would be more careful about buying and preparing too much food; retailers and manufacturers would compete to minimise packaging. That is the theory.

Trials in a variety of our residential estates show implementation to be much harder. How do you charge individual households? How do you measure the waste each produces? How do you stop them disposing of it secretly? How do you punish non-compliance? Maybe it works in Japan; in Hong Kong, it looks like a potential political, administrative and enforcement nightmare.

Many people believe they can sit in their chair - especially one in Legco - and come up with better policies than the government. This is their big chance to prove it. Anyone who can solve this looming waste crisis deserves a medal.

Bernard Chan is a former member of the executive and legislative councils