Despite endless studies on a better strategy to reduce municipal waste over the past decade, our city is nowhere near a consensus on the way forward. Meanwhile, people seem unaware of their wasteful habits. Mountains of rubbish continue to be thrown out every day, and our landfills are fast reaching their capacity. However, there appears to have been some progress. The latest public consultation saw more than 60 per cent support for a charge on solid waste. It is encouraging to see the "polluters pay" principle has been accepted by the community. Although the charge level has yet to be worked out, a family of three may pay HK$30 to HK$40 a month if the Taipei city's model is adopted. The amount seems reasonable. It should help clear the first major hurdle for the government to move forward.
However, that does not necessarily mean we are moving away from a throwaway society. Under the plan, another round of public consultation on how to implement the charge will be held. Taking into account the time for legislation and other preparations, enforcement will not be ready until 2016, just two years before our landfills are expected to be filled.
Admittedly, a waste-charging scheme involves a great deal of logistics and compliance issues. For instance, the charge may prompt illegal dumping and could see an estimated 27 tonnes of waste discarded across the city each day. In Taipei, the problem has been dealt with by withdrawing all public litter bins in the city. Our officials appear to have reservations about this, saying it may create a nuisance if the 3,000 refuse-collection points and 20,000 roadside rubbish bins are removed.
Enforcement aside, there is a need to redouble efforts at waste separation and recycling. The proposed charge is meant to instil changes in wasteful habits. It would be meaningless if reusable materials such as bottles and cans continue to pile up in landfills. Encouraging households and businesses to do more recycling should be a complementary step to take.
Only when we have to pay for what we throw away will we seriously consider changing our behaviour. There is no doubt a waste charge is an effective tool to prompt a rethink before we throw anything into a pre-paid refuse bag.
A lack of urgency is holding back bold and resolute steps to reduce waste. Officials should aim at a more ambitious timetable and press ahead with implementing the logistics. Further delay will cause only more damage to our environment.