Charging scheme is best quick fix for Hong Kong’s municipal waste problem

John Chai says a charging scheme is the best way to quickly tackle our municipal waste problem, but the onus should also be on producers

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 February, 2014, 4:30pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 February, 2014, 2:04am

The scale of Hong Kong's waste issue has become so vast that everyone in town knows we have to act quickly. But what shall we do? Although there are many ways to alleviate the problem, some are deemed to be long-term solutions, involving more detailed planning and hardware. To find a quick fix, waste charging would be the right step to take.

There has been a charge for disposing of construction and demolition waste in Hong Kong since 2006. What we need to do now is launch municipal solid waste charging, to include both commercial, industrial and domestic waste. We believe a suitable fee would be about HK$400-HK$499 per tonne for commercial and industrial waste, which translates to about HK$30 to HK$40 per month for an average household of three for domestic waste.

A suitable fee would be about HK$400-HK$499 per tonne for commercial and industrial waste ... about HK$30 to HK$40 per month for an average household of three for domestic waste

This relatively low level should gain general acceptance more easily to allow it to be brought in as soon as possible. It is also pitched at a level that can spur behavioural change without overburdening lower-income groups.

Once implemented, the charges and mechanism can be reviewed and fine-tuned over time to give people more incentives to reduce waste further. Charging can help educate people to use less and waste less. Paying for our waste to be disposed of, just like paying for our plastic shopping bags, helps make us more environmentally aware.

Taipei saw its municipal waste disposal rates shrink from 1.1kg per capita per day in 2000 to 0.39kg in 2010 after the introduction of a waste charging policy. It is now aiming at zero waste. A similar situation occurred in South Korea, where the levy on domestic food waste resulted in a 20 per cent fall in volume in just a year.

Based on our analysis, Hong Kong can stop some 1,200 tonnes of waste going into its landfills every day by introducing municipal solid waste charging by early next year. However, if we want to get anywhere near the target of 1kg per capita per day by 2017 (it was 1.27kg in 2011), as set out in the government's blueprint for sustainable use of resources, we have to introduce a producer responsibility scheme next year as well. Such a scheme, outlined in the blueprint, targets plastic shopping bags, waste electrical and electronic equipment, and glass beverage bottles. We believe it should also include deposit schemes so people have an incentive to return plastic and glass bottles, which manufacturers can then reuse. This could substantially increase the amount of material recovered.

The government has set a clear target of cutting municipal solid waste by 40 per cent, to 0.8kg per person, by 2022. However, according to a recent report by the Environmental Protection Department, the average amount of solid waste being dumped in landfills is actually increasing.

If we want to stop Asia's "world city" from drowning in waste, we have to act - and quickly. A charging scheme for municipal solid waste can be implemented relatively swiftly with a comparatively simple mechanism. The public consultation exercise has ended. Now what's required is action to fix our imminent waste crisis.

Professor John Chai is chairman of the Business Environment Council