Dealing with the source of the mess

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 March, 2011, 12:00am

Our government has proposed a few relatively weak waste avoidance measures but comparatively strong end-of-pipe solutions to address our waste problem. Yet, the volume of waste has gone up by 7.3 per cent from 2005 to 2009 - despite the Environment Bureau's target of cutting waste generation by 1 per cent every year from 2005.

The government has often promoted a hierarchy of waste management with avoidance as the preferred option and waste treatment/disposal as the least preferred. However, in reality, the bureau stresses the importance of incineration ahead of waste charging policies.

No matter what options the government proposes, it will inevitably trigger public opposition. The government should make it easier for people to understand the pros and cons of all options. This will lead to holistic waste management, which is not simply about burning or burying waste.

With the closure of the last incinerator in Hong Kong in 1997, the government should have immediately explored other clean, sustainable technologies and developed measures to cut waste generation. But officials have been short-sighted and are relying only on a single solution - landfills - as the core strategy.

Former environment secretary Sarah Liao Sau-tung did understand the root cause of our waste problem, and set out a policy framework to manage municipal solid waste in 2005 that included a basket of policies such as waste charging, producer responsibility schemes and a landfill ban, along with building an incinerator. However, the current environment chief, Edward Yau Tang-wah, did not adhere to the holistic approach. Instead, a great deal of effort was put into promoting waste treatment measures, such as a 3,000 tonne-capacity incinerator.

The government has implemented one ideal strategy to address the root cause of a waste problem: the excessive use of plastic bags. Instead of putting recycling bins outside supermarkets to collect used plastic bags, it chose the more difficult route of imposing a levy on each bag to change the public's attitude. This, according to the Environmental Protection Department, has resulted in a 90 per cent drop in usage.

Yet, the government has not employed similar strategies to curb the overall growth of the city's waste.

We ought to understand that Hong Kong generates much more rubbish than our neighbouring cities and other developed economies. If our government is not using the right approach - in this case, to control growth through fees and promoting producer responsibility - then even if all 18 districts each built an incinerator, we would still face a waste problem. Ultimately, it would just mean more costly infrastructure that takes up valuable land.

The use of hi-tech hardware may at first seem to be solving the problem, but it is not addressing the root causes - people's affluent lifestyles and consumption behaviour. A holistic waste management strategy is the only answer to Hong Kong's ever-growing waste problem.

Edwin Lau Che-feng is director of Friends of the Earth (HK)