Time to throw out the old mindset on waste problem

Why Hong Kong's rubbish-strewn path towards recycling leads to Sweden

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 May, 2014, 4:10am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 May, 2014, 4:10am

Last week, the chief executive returned from Sweden, where he was on a trip to study how this small country, with a marginally higher population than Hong Kong, manages to be so innovative in its development and use of technology.

Separately, Secretary for the Environment Wong Kam-sing won a hard-fought battle this week to get his Shek Kwu Chau incineration plant project through the Legislative Council public works subcommittee.

These two stories brought back memories of my service in the now defunct Regional Council, under which, back in the late 1980s, we visited Sweden with the help of the Swedish consulate to see how waste was tackled.

We got to know what was then a very sophisticated system: a network of underground vacuum pipes to collect household rubbish. The waste was first sorted at homes and put into different-coloured bags. These were stored temporarily in inlet pipes that were then emptied at regular intervals by vacuum suction to nearby collecting stations, where the bags were sorted by colour and opened automatically.

The result was a highly efficient and hygienic rubbish sorting and recycling system that reduced significantly the amount of municipal waste that had to be disposed at landfills.

A quarter of a century later, Sweden now claims the amazing achievement that less than 1 per cent of the country's domestic rubbish ends up in a dump. The rest is recycled: half from waste to heat energy via incineration, and the other half through material and biological recycling.

Its next priority is to sort and treat biologically no less than 50 per cent of food waste from homes, restaurants, institutional kitchens and shops by 2018.

The story shows the hard battle in harnessing municipal waste can be won - with the right technology and the right mindset.

Constructing a modern incinerator is a prerequisite if we want to shut down our rubbish dumps early. But that in itself is far from enough. What we need to do, and do in a big way, is to preach the sorting and recycling gospel vigorously so it sinks in deep into the public consciousness.

We all share the original sin of being waste generators. We should all be taught to be responsible for it. Waste sorting at source should be a civic duty, just like queuing in public places or driving within speed limits. Other than the handling of food waste, which can be tricky in Hong Kong's hot and humid climate, sorting out non-organic household rubbish should be easy enough as this does not have to be disposed of daily.

Before that, the government will have to reorganise the way waste is collected, along the lines of reducing collection facilities for unsorted waste and far more convenient collection facilities for pre-sorted waste.

Given the high benefits in reducing the amount of waste that would go to landfills, recycling should be subsidised as a necessary move, rather than left to the mercy of fluctuating market conditions.

With determination and the right policy mix, I am optimistic I will live to see our waste problem overcome in time.

Lam Woon-kwong is convenor of the Executive Council