At a conference on solid waste last month, an Italian professor talked about Naples' painful experience dealing with its garbage. The city had millions of tonnes of waste but no place to dump it. And the problem was a result of the "Nimo" (not in my office) syndrome, he said, accusing officials of dodging the unpopular but necessary action to create more landfill space.
In Hong Kong, a mix of "not in my office", "not in my constituency" and "not in my backyard" syndromes complicate plans for unpopular landfill facilities. Last week, environment officials failed to push through landfill extension plans to lengthen the lives of three landfills for 15 years.
The officials did not have sufficient political support, and now, one of those landfills will be full in two years. Some confessed privately to activists that previous officials' inaction was to blame for today's problem. They blamed the failure to implement the 10-year waste reduction framework drawn up in 2005, which set out a clear road map for reducing, recycling and disposing of waste. Most initiatives, including introducing waste charging, never materialised.
And that gave politicians a powerful justification for opposing landfill extensions: officials failed to reduce waste in the first place, so no matter how comprehensive the latest sustainable resource use blueprint is, it's little more than a piece of paper.
Another excuse politicians cite is the government's failure to improve environmental hygiene at landfills. Till now, officials remain unable to explain why sweeteners - such as retrofitting rubbish trucks - to get Tseung Kwan O residents to accept a landfill extension were not offered earlier.
No doubt, Tseung Kwan O residents living close to the landfill do suffer, and their grievances must be addressed. And Tuen Mun residents also have reason to complain, as their district is home to more polluting facilities than any other. That's why some asked for compensation - a sensible request.
But the lack of a transparent compensation system means gauging the fairness of any consequent political bargain would be highly complicated, if not impossible.
"So when some ask for a rail line in exchange for their support, we will know how much they really want to make a genuine deal," one activist said. The activist said he was deeply worried about the current situation, in which politicians put their own popularity before the environmental needs of the city's future generations.
An academic who specialises in waste issues also expressed concern, calling on the government to introduce stringent landfill operating standards, and to close landfills if such standards were violated. "Let's work our way out instead of blaming each other for time lost and things undone," he said.