Rubbish recyclers may get subsidies in waste policy overhaul

New committee will be tasked with rethinking rubbish management as trash crisis looms

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 July, 2013, 7:59am

Subsidies for the city's flagging waste recycling industry are an option that the government will study, the environment minister says, in a possible major policy shift to support such businesses.

The idea was unveiled yesterday, as two of the administration's proposals - a HK$7 billion extension of the Ta Kwu Ling landfill and a HK$35 million study of expansion at the Tuen Mun facility - received approval from a Legislative Council subcommittee.

A new high-level steering committee, to be chaired by Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, would examine whether and how to offer the subsidies, said Secretary for the Environment Wong Kam-sing. Lam has been lobbying directly for lawmakers' support on the landfills.

The committee, to be formed within months, will look at rubbish management on all fronts, from land use and planning to government procurement and manpower to help the recycling industry. In particular, it will look at whether the trade should be subsidised.

"The committee will study the possibility of offering regular subsidies to support the recycling industry," Wong said. "In the long run, we will not rule out setting up a recycling fund."

The committee will study the possibility of offering regular subsidies to support the recycling industry. In the long run, we will not rule out setting up a recycling fund

He said any planned subsidy must be cost-effective for the whole of society.

A source familiar with the situation described the move as possibly a "major policy shift". "The committee may be only a start. But it marks the government's first ever recognition that recycling businesses could be subsidised."

A lot of questions had to be studied before any concrete plan could be decided on, the source added, addressing such issues as who should be eligible, what the target recycling rate and level of subsidy should be, and whether to include imported waste.

If subsidies were provided, the government should also take the opportunity to upgrade the industry, which is now engaged mainly in waste export, they said.

Last year, the city recovered about three million tonnes of waste, 99 per cent of which was exported, generating revenue of HK$8.2 billion.

Wong floated the option at a meeting of the Legislative Council public works subcommittee that voted in support of the two landfill proposals. Both plans will be tabled to the Legco Finance Committee on July 12 for final funding approval.

A third extension plan, for the Tseung Kwan O landfill, was dropped last week because of strong opposition, but is expected to be resubmitted next year.

Wong Yuk-chun, who operates a recycling plant that turns food waste into fish feed, welcomed the new focus on recycling, but expressed reservations.

"It is interesting to see the government has been paying unscrupulous contractors to collect plastic waste and dump it in landfills," he said. "But we who collect food waste locally and reprocess it into a final product … receive not a single cent."

He cited high land rents and difficulties in waste collection as obstacles to their operations.

Both Federation of Trade Unions and Labour Party lawmakers have been asking for a recycling fund if they are to support landfill extensions.

Celia Fung Sze-lai, from Friends of the Earth, said subsidies should target the rubbish that the market had the least incentive to collect and recycle, such as plastics, food and wood.