Public support for plans to tackle waste must be earned

Edwin Lau suggests measures that will build government credibility

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 March, 2014, 6:50pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 March, 2014, 2:26am

The controversy over expanding our landfills and building a 3,000-tonne-per-day thermal waste treatment facility is mainly due to people's lack of trust in the government, rather than any lack of money. No one doubts we have the finances to obtain the cleanest technology that will have a low environmental impact and public health risk.

Although any city needs landfills and incinerators, they form part of a holistic waste management plan, and are less desirable than solutions that avoid creating waste.

Bigger landfills and incinerators can't magically reduce the amount of waste generated. However, waste avoidance policies, especially those with financial penalties, will significantly lower waste generation at source.

Some people say we don't need to extend our landfills or build a treatment plant. They are wrong, as are those who say that if we have bigger landfills and a thermal waste treatment plant, our problems will be solved.

Hong Kong is similar to developing cities in that we don't have every aspect of a holistic waste management process in place.

The government knows that waste charging, a landfill ban, producer responsibility schemes, and support for the recycling industry are all important and effective policies that will cut the growth in waste and waste disposal rates. Unfortunately, these measures exist only on paper as yet.

The serious delays in implementing all necessary measures mean the government has lost its credibility when negotiating with political parties that could offer support for its proposals.

The first step is for officials to earn the trust of various stakeholders, to give the administration a better chance of winning the necessary political support for its proposals to deal with the more than 9,200 tonnes of municipal solid waste generated every day in Hong Kong.

To help it regain public trust, the government should promptly announce how a HK$1 billion subsidy will be allocated to support the local recycling industry for low-value recyclables. These items still end up in landfills rather than being recovered.

Next, officials should set a timetable to introduce legislation for producer responsibility schemes, some of which were planned during the Tung Chee-hwa era. Waste electrical and electronic equipment, and drinks bottles, should be the priority.

The government seems very committed to introducing waste charging across all sectors, by 2016 at the earliest. This is the best way to drive changes in individuals' and companies' attitudes and practices when it comes to waste disposal and reducing the amount of waste generated.

However, the government needs to commit enough resources now to help residential and commercial properties set up convenient and proper waste separation and recycling systems to support the public need when waste charging takes effect.

This is an important step to ease concerns that citizens will be forced to pay the waste charges because there aren't enough facilities to dispose of recyclables.

The government should also impose a landfill ban on certain types of low-value recyclables, for example, used furniture, to divert them to the appropriate channels.

Such action will cost the government very little compared to the cost of expanding landfills. All it requires is genuine commitment.

What better way to earn the trust of society?

Edwin Lau Che-feng is head of advocacy and education at Friends of the Earth (HK). www.foe.org.hk