Well-researched community initiatives are placing a different pressure on the government to look at how to implement its waste management policy.
Waste management is widely recognised as a community problem. Waste levels are excessive relative to other places and landfill sites are running out of capacity. Community objections to landfill expansion and the use of incinerators are problems inherited from the previous administration.
In May, the Environment Bureau issued the "Blueprint for Sustainable Use of Resources 2013-2022", a comprehensive look at the waste problems in Hong Kong and the possible solutions, with the tag line of "Use Less, Waste Less". It does not just look at how to deal with waste disposal, but is an overview of the social changes and physical infrastructure needed to make Hong Kong a more sustainable city. It addresses broadly how to reduce waste going to landfills.
One frightening outcome is that everything is happening too late and too slowly. With landfills due to reach capacity in 2016, there is no real alternative available. The consultation on waste charging is one of the initiatives in progress - and it is at least 10 years late. The Shek Kwu Chau incinerator is held up in the courts and does not have the Legislative Council funding.
The blueprint recognises that there is great public distrust in dealing with the waste problem. It also recognises that citizen involvement in addressing waste reduction and recycling at source is fundamental. Mobilising the community is first on the to-do list, while the need for multiple concurrent actions is second.
There is amazing knowledge in the community on waste management issues, on technical and professional levels, and from general environmental awareness.
The government is now getting public support urging it to do something. In October, the Integrated Waste Management Action Group (IWMAG) submitted an application to the Town Planning Board to zone four sites for modern waste management facilities.
Last week, another NGO, the New Territories Concern Group, produced a report on waste management which lays out an alternative to the Shek Kwu Chau incinerator by proposing the use of plasma gasification and asking the government to choose "carefully, cleverly and sensibly".
One of the objectives in the blueprint should perhaps have been to harness community knowledge. Instead, there is still an anti-government feeling, based on the decisions of previous administrations. Overcoming this is possibly the biggest challenge for Environment Minister Wong Kam-shing and his team.
The blueprint identified gaps in infrastructure provision but did not say how to fill them in the required time-frame.
The Integrated Waste Management Action Group carried out a search to find sites that are immediately available for fully integrated waste management treatment facilities. This means including several functions on the same site - waste sorting, recycling, composting, converting waste to energy and disposing of the residual material. Not all facilities need to be on all sites. The group also looked at "sharing the load" regionally, to promote community responsibility.
One criteria was that the sites should not be near major population areas. Another was they had to be available now and, if possible, have sea access to reduce land transport. The sites should also be large enough to flexibly accommodate new technology, and enable more than one facility to be built at the same time. All the currently planned facilities have inadequate capacity, and the recycling industry cannot find suitable sites. A different approach is therefore necessary.
The proposal is to make better use of two existing landfill sites - the West New Territories landfill at Tuen Mun and the North East New Territories site at Cha Kwo Ling - by broadening their permitted use to accommodate the full range of facilities rather than just landfill. The Tseung Kwan O landfill is not considered suitable, but an existing unused waterfront site located to the east is. A fourth site is proposed on Lantau to the northeast of Disneyland, on existing reclamation and partly sited in a cavern. Minimal impact on the theme park can be assured by providing separate vehicle access, good design and intense landscaping. If these plans were implemented, there would be no need for the proposed incinerator and reclamation at Shek Kwu Chau. The proposed rezoning could save at least two years in implementation.
The two NGOs, in their separate studies, have effectively produced a strategic analysis of where Hong Kong is and what needs to be done with waste. These community initiatives have identified practical and sustainable ways forward. Can the government take this opportunity to step back from past decisions and review them in a new light?
Ian Brownlee is managing director of planning and development consultancy Masterplan Limited and facilitated the IWMAG application. See www.wastehk.org