Waste can become the fuel for a greener Hong Kong
The large-scale incinerator planned for the island off southern Lantau, Shek Kwu Chau, has sparked strong debate about its practicality and, in many ways, the future of Hong Kong. This is not just a 'not in my backyard' issue, it is about an ill-planned project that will affect the entire city and even those who might want to visit or live here in the future.
By holding the public hostage to a railroaded approval process, forcing us all to accept outdated technology, poor planning and lack of foresight, the government is setting itself up for further alienation from a public it is trying to win over with 'harmonious' activities.
Southern Lantau is valuable because it will increasingly be the 'lungs and heart' of the city we live in, along with the coasts and islands within our reach. Once these assets are taken away, there will be nothing left in the bank for us to draw on.
It was not so many years ago that Hong Kong remained one of the few countries that did not classify waste as a renewable energy source. This hindered many potential waste-to-fuel technologies and innovations that could have been set up around the existing landfills, where our waste planning basically equates to digging bigger landfill holes.
When Beijing put some pressure on our city to have a higher renewable energy input, the government then realised it had to allow waste to be turned to fuel in order to achieve its goals, already meagre when compared with the rest of our neighbours in the region.
So, we are now being told that waste can be valuable, and incineration can be the solution to our landfill issues, but we are being presented with an outdated way of thinking and planning that will greatly reduce the perceived benefits of such a plan. Why should our population, with a wealthy government, accept substandard thinking and solutions, and environmental degradation all at the same time? This is like building a highway and ensuring that it is designed with large potholes.
Technologies today have shown that waste has value as secondary raw materials. It is something we want to preserve, re-use and extract value from, while maintaining the value of our assets in the 'bank' - our environment. Incinerating waste is the lazy way out of a problem; it depletes the resources right under our noses.
By separating all plastic waste, for example, economies of scale can be created for proper, value-added recycling. This saves energy and creates material that leading brands of the world are starting to use. After all of the valuable plastic material is extracted, the remaining material can be turned into fuel, not via incineration, but via distillation, which turns it back to a liquid. Plastic is stored energy after all, derived from petroleum.
The huge benefit this now creates is that all of our food waste and organic material can be treated separately, using new composting or other technologies. When all of these waste streams are separated, the creation of methane in landfills is avoided. Plastic can be harnessed as a fuel in a much bigger way. And, no incineration is needed.
An incinerator at Shek Kwu Chau will not only cause immeasurable long-term damage to the value of Hong Kong as a city by the sea, to the island it occupies, to the ocean it fills, and to the quality of life for tomorrow's generation - it will show the world that we lack the skills and planning to create a truly world-class city. The plan will also create carbon emissions from support transport, probably offsetting the 'renewable' resources it is meant to create.
Instead, we could deploy new recycling, composting and specialised waste-to-fuel options which would maximise the value that this secondary raw material represents.
We are missing out on a huge job creation opportunity here, not to mention an impressive environmental leadership role to be proud of.
Do we have the ability to guide this project and planning in the direction that this city deserves?
Douglas Woodring is founder of the Ocean Recovery Alliance and a Clinton Global Initiative Commitment Maker