Hong Kong must ensure that those who generate waste are responsible for it
Edwin Lau welcomes the launch of a government recycling fund, but says a much more effective way to reduce Hong Kong's waste is to cut it at source - such as by introducing a waste charge
The slowdown of the world economy, coupled with relatively low oil prices, has led to the price of recyclables plummeting this year, with plastics affected most.
Many recyclers have stopped collecting used plastic as their high running costs cannot be covered by such low-value recyclables. Furthermore, it is quite common for recyclers to have to pay an "entrance" fee to gain access to large residential estates or shopping malls to collect recyclables and this further adds to their financial burden.
Besides plastics, the price of metal and paper have also dropped substantially. Recently, I walked around several recycling shops; the cheapest price for iron was 50 cents per kilogram, paper, 40 cents per kilogram - with no price offered for plastic. Worryingly, without government and private-sector assistance, even if we put clean plastic into recycling bins, it will probably end up in landfills.
The government's HK$1 billion Recycling Fund to reduce waste disposal is finally with us, and is accepting applications from this month. Officials hope the fund will enhance the efficiency of the recycling industry by subsidising the purchase of machines and trucks, as well as training for workers and the like.
However, having talked to people who run recycling businesses, it seems the industry is not simply looking for subsidies to buy more or new machinery; instead, they want the fund to help tackle their immediate challenge - the high costs of labour, rent, insurance and other items that the current value of recyclables cannot even cover, let alone enable them to make a profit.
Our neighbour Taipei has regulations that require producers to be responsible for the waste generated by their businesses. They are required by law to contribute money to a fund established by the government to subsidise collectors and therefore ensure more types of recyclables are collected. Here in Hong Kong, only construction and demolition waste, plus plastic shopping bags, have mandatory charges. We are still awaiting effective policies for waste charging and producer responsibility.
The problem appears to be that the government doesn't want to give recurrent subsidies to help the recycling industry, hence the one-off Recycling Fund.
It may not be best for the government to give long-term subsidies to the industry, but it should speed up the introduction of producer responsibility legislation so recyclers who collect packaging waste on their behalf get financial support.
Without a waste charging law, most businesses and individuals do not take serious steps to manage their waste. Most corporations take a wait-and-see attitude on government regulations. On their own, they are unlikely to provide any resources for waste management.
Individuals, too, often don't see the full picture. Take wedding banquets. The hosts often thought they were being environmentally friendly by allowing a non-governmental organisation to collect leftover food at the end - yet most are unwilling to pay the NGO's transport costs. Few people see that they are the ones who are responsible for the waste generated, and the NGOs are providing a service.
With the Recycling Fund, the government has taken another step to help the industry. We should welcome this step, however small.
Companies in Hong Kong should also do their part. They should commit a small amount of money to managing their waste and, more importantly, set targets to encourage their employees to reduce waste at source. Cutting the use of plastic water bottles could be a good starting point.
Edwin Lau Che-feng is head of community engagement and partnership at Friends of the Earth (HK). www.foe.org.hk