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  • Dec 29, 2014
  • Updated: 3:38am
Lai See
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 May, 2013, 4:39am

What kind of waste incinerator does Hong Kong need?


Howard Winn has been with the South China Morning Post for two and half years after previous stints as business editor and deputy editor of The Standard, and business editor of Asia Times. His writing has also been published in the Far Eastern Economic Review, the Wall Street Journal, and the International Herald Tribune. He writes the Lai See column which focuses on the lighter side of business.

The troubling question of what to do about Hong Kong's waste got a spirited airing at a public forum yesterday evening. There was a panel of five experts who were attending the "International Conference on Solid Waste 2013 - Innovation in Technology and Management". The conference was organised by the Sino-Forest Applied Research Centre for Pearl River Delta Environment, which is attached to Hong Kong Baptist University.

The previous administration's proposal was to build a large 3,000-tonnes-per-day incinerator on the controversial location of Shek Kwu Chau, a scenic island off South Lantau. Legco shelved this last year. Controversy intensified in 2011 when it became apparent that instead of going ahead with the original site near the ash lagoons at Tsang Tsui, Tuen Mun, Donald Tsang's administration wilted in the face of pressure from its political supporter, the Heung Yee Kuk, and opted for the alternative site at Shek Kwu Chau, leaving it to the Environmental Protection Department to make the case for it to the public, thereby earning its distrust.

There has also been controversy over the type of technology to be used, with critics saying the government has not properly looked at other forms of technology such as gasification. The suspicion that has dogged the project spilled over into yesterday's forum, with several of the roughly 150-strong audience noting that the panel appeared to be made up of incineration proponents. Indeed, although the conference was supposed to be examining thermal treatment of waste, there appeared to be no gasification experts there. Some darkly suggested to Lai See this was because the Hong Kong conference had been timed to coincide with the much bigger conference in London on waste treatment. No doubt this was just a coincidence.

All this aside, it seems clear that modern incinerators have drastically reduced emissions over the past 15 years. Panellist Professor Umberto Arena, a waste energy specialist from Second University, Naples, told the forum that in his opinion gasification and moving grate incineration were similar in terms of their low levels of emissions, and their ability to convert waste to electricity.

Most panellists seemed to agree that if the need was for a large, single, thermal treatment project then incineration was better. But Professor Arena said that if it was also possible to have two or three smaller units, then gasification units were also an option. "The technology is tried and tested over 10 years," he said. Another panellist, Dr Lee Potts from AECOM, the government's technical consultants on the incinerator project said that gasification didn't have a track record at the levels of 3,000 tonnes a day. One significant advantage gasification offers is much lower levels of residue of around 4 per cent, which can be used as material for road building. Ash from incineration is significantly higher at 10-20 per cent but has to be treated and dumped in landfills.

Christine Loh Kung-wai, the undersecretary for the environment, told the forum that Hong Kong was facing a crisis over its waste and had to make a decision on the technology fairly quickly since the landfills would be full in a few years. She added that the government would shortly be issuing a blueprint outlining proposals on dealing with waste for the next 10 years. This will encompass plans for separating domestic waste, reuse and recycling as well as the already announced plans for organic waste treatment plants for processing food waste.

There is no doubt Hong Kong needs some kind of thermal process to deal with its daily waste and to eventually munch its way through the landfills. The government appears wedded to the idea of one big incinerator, though the other possibility is a larger number of smaller ones. But the political effort for this may prove too much for the government to contemplate.


The guitar factor

Now for something slightly different. We see that a new study in France concludes, after exhaustive research, that a man is more attractive to the opposite sex if there's a guitar in his hand. This will come as no surprise to members of rock groups who have benefited from this effect for years. The study was published in the journal Psychology of Music and confirms the findings of an Israeli study published last year.


Have you got any stories that Lai See should know about? E-mail them to howard.winn@scmp.com


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This article is now closed to comments

It is a relative wash to compare moving grate incineration (MGI) and plasma gasification (PG) purely by "low emissions". Despite both being thermal waste treatment technologies, the end results--including long term potential--are not the same. Without becoming too technical, PG is a multifunctional technology; it can process any sort of waste--toxic, bio-hazardous or otherwise--while simultaneously offering substantially better emissions performance and lower waste gas and ash production, all at costs comparable to existing MGI. If the additional costs of landfilling the toxic ash produced in conventional MGI and the need for a specialized facility for handling toxic and bio-hazardous waste are factored in, then the economics of PG look even more favorable compared to MGI. For all sense and purposes, MGI has reached the relative apex of its potential.
Instead of the IWMF proposal for one 3000 ton per day (tpd) MGI facility, three 1000 tpd PG facilities (with room for scalability) could be constructed at each of the strategic landfills. With further advances in technology, capacity could be upgraded to handle more of the city's waste.
Incineration and gasification both turns solid to gas and it was wrong to say that they have "low" emissions, the author ought to make it very clear that the low referred to is toxic or heavy metal emissions. The undeniable fact is that gases are emitted and all of these waste gases will be asborb into rain clouds that will return to our ec0-system via rainfalls. We only found out about sulphur acid rain after ignorant politicians approved burning coal. How many of our scientist and politicians and Government civil servants knows the effects of waste gases? Certainly I do not believe C Loh knows enough! All she wants is to "DEAL" with our waste problem. She doesn't care if by doing so, we pollute the atmosphere over the ocean south of HK.
Even if Hong Kong succeeds in repeating the successes of Taiwan and Korea's concerted efforts of reducing, recycling and ultimately incinerating waste - we still need more that only one big incinerator! Good luck in finding some 6 to 10 sites!!! So let's stop finding yet another diversion based on ignorance of the real issues, and get on with the incinerator on Shek Kwu Chau.
P.S. I was also wondering why nobody was there to explain gasification and plasma etc., and was told that several companies were invited - but none even bothered to reply!
One large incinerator makes no sense regardless of location. Build smaller units at existing landfill sites as transport is in place and phased replacement will cost less as new technologies emerge.


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