Sweden shows incineration can play key role in waste management plan

Ulf Ohrling and Kristian Odebjer say Hong Kong should set bolder targets, to be a regional leader

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 April, 2014, 9:31pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 April, 2014, 4:07am

As Hong Kong approaches critical decisions on the future of its waste management, there is an opportunity to add some perspective from a country that would count as one of the most progressive in this particular area: Sweden.

Sweden has, in a relatively short period of time, achieved a remarkable increase in recycling rates, which has been accompanied by a corresponding reduction in waste ending up in landfills. At the same time, waste incineration has been embraced as an environmentally friendly source of energy.

The statistics speak for themselves: equal shares of municipal solid waste end up being recycled and incinerated (49 per cent of each), with less than 1 per cent of the total going to landfills. Substantial progress has been accomplished in just over a decade (as late as 2001, more than 20 per cent of municipal solid waste still went to landfills).

Key to this development have been taxation on landfills, household waste charges, and clear goals set by the government - "50 per cent recycling by 2010", for example. At the same time, there has been a concerted effort to explain the many benefits to society of a reduced waste burden and waste as a source of energy.

In fact, so successful has this been that Sweden has literally run out of garbage to feed its waste-to-energy incineration programme; in recent years it has had to import thousands of tonnes of trash from its neighbours. At the same time, evolving technology means emissions from incineration are less of an issue.

While Sweden, with a population of 9.5 million, differs from Hong Kong in many ways (space is less of a constraint, for one), the key points from Sweden's success story are replicable here. Studying the Hong Kong government's blueprint for the sustainable use of resources, important components of which are about to be launched, we believe the city is on the right track - for example, with its vision of a 40 per cent reduction in waste by 2022 as well as the target outcome of 55 per cent of waste being recycled and 23 per cent incinerated in 2022, leaving only 22 per cent for landfills (compared with 52 per cent of waste going to landfills today).

If Hong Kong is successful in reaching both its waste reduction target and the increased recycling and incineration rates, it can expect a drop in the need for landfills, thus making the slated expansion of landfill capacity a pure stop-gap measure.

If anything, the government could set even more ambitious targets. The example of Sweden, as well as those in Asia like Taiwan and South Korea quoted in the blueprint, show that very substantial progress is possible in a relatively short time once workable policies are implemented.

As pointed out by others, Hong Kong needs to move beyond debating whether incineration should form part of its future waste management policies; it clearly has to. There is a healthy debate about the exact location of plants, but the decision should not be allowed to drag on to the detriment of public interests.

What is troubling is that, so far, there has not been much focus in the public debate on the waste-to-energy potential of incineration. The government has highlighted this in the blueprint, but it needs to be bolder when it comes to explaining the benefits of a decreased reliance on conventional sources of energy and, if needed, challenging any vested interests in the power generation industry.

In fact, in a resource-deprived location like Hong Kong, waste has been overlooked as a source of energy for way too long. In Sweden, biogas from food waste powers city buses and, in some cases, entire municipalities. While this type of paradigm shift may not be achieved overnight, an important change in mindsets could be accomplished by embarking on a journey towards a more responsible and innovative handling of waste.

Looking at the bigger picture, Hong Kong should adopt even bolder visions on sustainability. It is dependent on being able to attract overseas companies and professionals. Hong Kong has the capacity to establish itself as the regional leader in building an environmentally friendly society. For "Asia's world city", nothing less should be acceptable.

The Swedish government and Swedish waste management operators and technology providers have much to share with Hong Kong. Sweden's journey to almost zero landfill use and increased use of waste as a source of energy (decreasing greenhouse gas emissions in the process) did not occur overnight, but through careful planning and creation of incentives for the public.

Ulf Ohrling is chairman of the Swedish Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong. Kristian Odebjer is the chamber's vice-chairman and head of its environmental committee