No alternative in the waste battle

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 January, 2012, 12:00am


Waste disposal has become a common problem for cities around the world. The situation in Hong Kong requires urgent attention. Despite a move towards more recycling, we are still one of the most wasteful places on the planet. The shortage of land, and the imminent exhaustion of our landfills, have made the problem more pertinent in our city. There is no option but to produce less waste. The question is how.

The public is being asked a difficult but unavoidable question. Should a waste charge be introduced to promote waste reduction? If so, how should it be levied? A charge was first proposed in the waste management strategy mapped out by the government in 2005, along with other controversial ideas such as levies on plastic- bag use and electronic-waste disposal. A three-month consultation has finally put a municipal waste disposal charge on the agenda.

We generate daily 19,000 tonnes of municipal solid waste. With a recovery rate of just 52 per cent, nearly 9,100 tonnes ends up in landfills every day. The volume of waste per capita has increased 11 per cent, from 2.42 kilograms a day in 2005 to 2.69kg last year, making us worse than cities such as Seoul, Tokyo and Taipei.

No one likes to pay for the collection of what they do not want. But there is good reason why the polluter-pays principle should apply. A mandatory charge for construction waste introduced by the government earlier has proved effective. Similarly, the requirement in Taipei to dump rubbish only in pre-paid bags of different sizes has halved the waste generated. In Japan, certain types of rubbish can only be thrown away on specific days of the week.

It is everyone's responsibility to generate less waste. There is no reason why we cannot adopt strategies similar to our neighbours'. The four options outlined in the consultation have their merits and drawbacks. No doubt a thorough debate is needed to find the best approach. The environment chief is perhaps right in leaving the contentious question of how much should be charged to a later stage. But, inevitably, the level of the charge will affect support and whether it would provide an incentive for people to change their behaviour.

Public opposition is inevitable. The government will be fighting an uphill battle to win support. But the mountain of waste building up at our landfills means there is no alternative to finding a better strategy to reduce it at source. Officials must redouble their efforts to explain why the scheme is needed. The charge will not stop people dumping waste, but the pressure on landfills can, hopefully, be substantially alleviated in the long term.