EPD needs a Plan B for waste management
Despite difficulties in pushing its controversial incinerator project through the Legislative Council, the government is showing no signs of taking a second look at its proposals. Indeed, it seems to be making it more obdurate in its determination to ram the project through.
However, organisations outside the government, notably the New Territories Concern Group and Clear the Air, have done much to alert the public and the government to alternative possibilities for dealing with Hong Kong's waste. But the government has confronted these alternatives almost as if they were a threat and tried to undermine them.
The government's plan is to build a mass-burn moving-grate incinerator on Shek Kwu Chau at a cost of about HK$15 billion and then spend a further HK$8 billion to HK$10 billion building an artificial island of 11.8 hectares. Inevitably, this price will rise. All this in a scenic conservation area. Even proponents of incineration think it odd to site the incinerator on an island miles away from the users of the electricity it is supposedly going to generate.
Then on top of that is the problem of disposing of the toxic waste, which for bottom ash can be as much as 30 per cent by weight. The capacity of the proposed incinerator is 3,000 tonnes of municipal solid waste per day, so there could be just under 1,000 tonnes a day of bottom ash that has to be carefully disposed of. The government's plan is to barge this across to the ash lagoons in Tuen Mun and, when these are filled, put it in the landfills.
Other technologies mooted by outside groups include plasma gasification, which is increasingly being used in preference to incineration by municipal authorities around the world. It is cheaper, cleaner and faster to install. There is no toxic fly ash or bottom ash. Instead, the end product is an inert slag that can be used for construction.
The Environmental Protection Department has tried to undermine this technology by telling us the technology is "uncertain" and repeatedly cited the case of one plasma gasification plant that closed in Japan. It said the closure was due to mechanical problems, whereas the reason it closed was it ran out of fuel. Then, we were told it was only suitable for small amounts of industrial waste. Yet we hear on a regular basis of plans in the United States, Britain and China to use plasma gasification for dealing with municipal solid waste.
The government's consultants, Aecom, have said gasification is not suitable in Hong Kong, but in the US an Aecom executive was quoted as saying that the technology was ready for large-scale commercialisation.
The New Territories Concern Group has suggested a pilot gasification plant be set up near a landfill site. Indeed, the government has received offers to do this free but declined them. One cannot help feeling that the government is so hidebound by its bureaucratic procedures that there is probably no way it could permit it within its rules. One can only speculate on the reasoning: "If we give land to one company, we'll have to give it to everyone."
Indeed, the longer this battle with the incinerator goes on, the more we begin to wonder if it is not so much the technology for the processes that are hindering a rethink, but the way the bureaucracy works and thinks. You get the impression that it does not have the will to go through the interminable meetings and reports again to come up with a better plan that may find more acceptance within the community.
Another plan the department has tried to flick away is the idea of garburating food waste at source and putting it through the sewage system. This would eliminate 40 per cent of the municipal solid waste that goes to landfill. The department airily says: "It would have an adverse impact on the sewers and sewage treatment works. Large-scale practical experience, especially for multi-storey buildings, is lacking and inconclusive internationally. Some cities have banned such practice."
According to Tim Evans, chairman of the wastewater management panel of the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management, the department's comments are incorrect. "My own research into the impact at sewage treatment works shows [food waste disposal] has no detrimental effect and probably has an overall beneficial effect on nutrient removal."
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