Time to pay for the inevitable

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 July, 2013, 3:19am

No developed city in Asia and perhaps the world is as wasteful as Hong Kong. With landfills fast approaching breaking point and objections to their expansion and the construction of incinerators, there is only one guaranteed quick way of relieving the strain: charging for waste disposal. Being forced to pay for the amount of garbage we throw away would make us think twice about what we buy and create a much-needed recycling culture. Best of all, it would make us less selfish about our city and the environment.

We each create 1.36kg of trash a day, an astounding amount given Hong Kong's small size and limited waste disposal options. Without action, our three landfills will have reached capacity within six years. The government's proposed solution, unveiled in May, provides the most sensible way forward with a combination of recycling, incineration and landfill expansion, all based on the principle that the polluter pays.

Paying for what is thrown away while giving incentives for avoiding and reducing is a common practice in other cities. Previous Hong kong governments have failed to raise the possibility for fear of angering residents and the result is that a garbage crisis is fast looming. The "not in my backyard" protests that are blocking incinerators and bigger landfills put uncertainties in the way of the blueprint. Implementation of a user-pays scheme therefore becomes not only a necessity, but a matter of urgency.

Under Secretary for the Environment Christine Loh Kung-wai set the right tone and gave hope last week. She told the South China Morning Post that should refuse charging be adopted for households and businesses in 2016, waste could be conservatively cut by 20 per cent in four years, assuming a system was firmly in place and charging implemented across the board. That would create the right mindset and lengthen the life of landfills, giving time, should it be needed, to put the other parts of a waste management solution in place.

Authorities will be launching a four-month public consultation on charging as soon as is practicable. Some of us will not like having to pay for a service that has so far been free. Before objecting, though, such people need to be aware that the time for putting off the inevitable is fast disappearing. The sooner the dire situation is faced up to and accepted, the sooner Hong Kong can get on with being the environmentally responsible city that it should, but has so far failed to be.