Island of trash: giant rubbish tip at Wailingding Island is a Hong Kong environmental ‘disaster waiting to happen’

Some blame the rubbish pile , only a short distance from Hong Kong, for the city’s polluted beaches

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 August, 2016, 11:19pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 August, 2016, 1:30pm

The easiest way to get to Wailingding Island is by a 90-minute ferry from Zhuhai but, on a fine day, the southern coasts of Lantau and Lamma loom large over the horizon. So close is the rocky outcrop to Hong Kong that faint mobile signals from the city may be picked up on the hills.

On this hot weekend afternoon, droves of holidaying ­tourists from Zhuhai and beyond are arriving at the pier. For some, it will be a weekend of sunbathing, hiking, seafood and angling. For others, it is Maotai and karaoke along Bar Street, Barbecue Street or Business Street.

There is certainly an “eco” vibe. Solar-powered street lights and fancy electric recycling bins line the streets. Hiking trails along the coast are given names such as Greenway 1 and Greenway 2. ­Segway-like electric scooters are a preferred method of transport.

But a different picture emerges at the shoreline. On this day, the waters that surround this island look filthy. Swathes of floating rubbish coagulate around the edges of the harbour – plastic bags, surgical gloves, bottles and disposable cutlery. Solid waste has enveloped the beach next to a new hotel project.

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It will make for a familiar sight for those who have been to Shek O or Nim Shue Wan in Hong Kong recently. Since June, torrents of rubbish have been washing up on city beaches and coastlines, many on the southern coast.

The proximity of Hong Kong to Wailingding has sparked speculation as to whether some of the city’s coastal waste woes are ­coming from a massive 10-storey hillside landfill on the island’s south western coast.

Four-year-old photos circulating on social media last month showed an entire hillside blanketed in a layer of rubbish. Much of it seems to be still there. A Post ­reporter visited the site recently and saw tipper trucks offloading layers of soil over the rubbish.

Chunks of dirt and debris tumble down the hill occasionally, ­exposing an underbelly of compacted trash – a composition of wood, old ventilation shafts, ­rubber hosing and other ­construction waste mixed in with ­regular household rubbish.

Hidden from nearly every ­accessible vantage point, the beast tilts at a precarious 50 ­degrees and is just a stone’s throw from the water’s edge. A trail of filth could be seen trickling off its rocky shores at the foot of the heap, turning waters into a floating muck of rubbish and litter.

Local fisherman Ah Yung, who also arranges speedboat tours around the island, said the ­government banned dumping and burning of rubbish at the tip about two years ago but fill from ­construction projects was still being dumped here.

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“Most of the earth being dumped here originally came from construction of the new ­passenger pier, but now it mainly comes from the building of houses and hotels,” he said.

Construction sites are ubiquitous – Ah Yung said that on peak days, the island may see up to 3,000 visitors – and as development increases, the amount of construction and municipal solid waste will also go up with it.

“They bulldozed a bunch of houses right there, including ours, about a year ago for some new ones,” a shopkeeper who runs a store near the main piazza said.

“We had opposed it at the beginning because we felt the compensation was too little. We could have made more money renting the house.”

Doug Woodring of Hong Kong-based NGO Ocean Recovery Alliance said the hillside landfill was just one possible source of the refuse washing up on the city’s coastlines, but not likely the main one. However, the precarious steepness and completely unprotected nature of the tip suggested an environmental “disaster just waiting to happen”.

He feared that more rubbish would be swept into the sea by rain, tides and typhoons.

“It will be a disaster for the ocean if that thing collapses,” he said.

Scientists and engineers also believe the structure is precarious. Hydrologist Professor Jimmy Jiao, of the University of Hong Kong’s School of Earth Sciences, said the dump site appeared primitive and the bedrock looked fractured.

“Leachate from the rubbish can easily enter the groundwater system and into seawater, causing seawater pollution,” he said.

Chau Kam-tim, Polytechnic University’s chair professor of geotechnical engineering, said the shear strength of the rubbish hill – the magnitude of stress the soil can sustain – did not appear well studied. “Clearly, there is no design for the safety of such a ­rubbish slope,” Chau said.

Looking at the Post’s photos, Woodring said the structure drew parallels to the massive construction waste dump that caused a fatal landslide in Shenzhen last year.

“If this thing collapses, all the rubbish will end up in the sea and this is right on Hong Kong’s doorstep,” he said.

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“At the very least, Hong Kong should be cooperating with local authorities to build a strong, resilient wall with a breakwater made of tetrapods – concrete structures – to stop the rubbish from bleeding out with coastal erosion.” But he stressed that Wailingding was just a “red herring” in the bigger picture of unresolved regional environmental problems. There was a need for Hong Kong and Guangdong authorities to work closer on the issue of cross-border marine pollution.

“There is already very good cross-border cooperation on the issue of air pollution, as they know it can only be tackled regionally. Marine pollution is the same thing, as it knows no boundaries once it is in the sea,” he said.

Last month, the Zhuhai ­government, which exercises jurisdiction over the island, rejected reports that it was responsible for Hong Kong’s rubbish woes. It claimed trash on the legal hillside landfill had been properly compacted and was shipped back to Zhuhai for disposal.

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society Southeast Asia director Gary Stokes agreed and said the dump was probably not the only source of the current deluge of rubbish. But it did illustrate how irresponsible management of waste in one place could have ­implications beyond local ­geography.

Stokes, as with the Environmental Protection Department, believes trash plaguing Hong Kong’s shores comes from sources such as the Pearl River Delta,where heavy flooding has flushed out rubbish into the estuary en masse.

Southwest monsoon winds and currents would likely have taken the rubbish back up and ­towards the city’s southern flank.

“It once again proves how ­marine pollution knows no ­borders. It’s one of those cases where a concept like ‘one country, two systems’ just goes right out the window,” he said. “I can guarantee you that if you go along the eastern coast of Guangdong, you’ll see Hong Kong trash on their shores too.”

He estimated about 40 per cent of Hong Kong’s recent floating coastal refuse came from the Pearl River Delta and 20 per cent from local sources. The rest was a “mystery source” that had yet to be identified.

“The Hong Kong and mainland governments need to work together to find what the source is,” he said.

Patrick Yeung Chung-wing, who manages Coastal Watch at WWF-Hong Kong, said both the city and the mainland needed to work together to find and reduce waste at source.

“If you look closely at this ­marine refuse, we can see that most of it is plastic and disposable goods. This would be a good place to start,” he said.

Yeung said few people realised that a lot of rubbish disposed of on land also tends to end up in the ocean when it is washed down waterways and drains during rains and floods.

Hong Kong itself has a serious waste problem. Against the backdrop of overfilling landfills, an average of 14,859 tonnes of solid waste was still discarded every day in 2014, an increase of 3.8 per cent from the year before.

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The amount of municipal solid waste dumped in landfills ­increased 2.5 per cent from an average of 9,547 tonnes per day in 2013 to 9,782 tonnes last year.

This means that on average a person generated 1.35kg of rubbish a day, a level far higher than comparable cities such as Taipei, Seoul and Singapore.

The Hong Kong government has repeatedly stressed that the recent deluge of waste was the ­result of an unusual phenomenon and believed heavy rain and flooding in Pearl River Delta cities was to blame.

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said the city would discuss with Guangdong how to deal with the problem but, at the same time, also needed to work on reducing local waste generation.

The Environmental Protection Department said it was ­working with other agencies to better prepare for similar scenarios in the future.

“We are working out more ­forward-looking ways to tackle the issue, including liaising with the Hong Kong Observatory and relevant departments, and our mainland counterparts,” a spokesman said.

“Guangdong and Hong Kong have an established platform to foster cooperation and exchange of views on environmental ­matters. We will make good use of this platform to strengthen and ­protect the environment of the ­region as well as Hong Kong.”

As the tourists scramble to the hotels and holiday homes on Wailingding, fishmongers hawk their daily catches by a palm-tree lined waterfront. Trinket vendors pedal “skin beautifying” pearl powder, decorative coral plucked from the ocean floor and bottled water.

A sprawling red 10-metre banner has been erected by the pier.

“Keep public consideration at heart, put civility in your actions,” large, bold yellow simplified ­Chinese characters scream.

No one seems to be paying attention.

How the shock waves hit

It began in late June, early July with shocking photos on social media of some of Hong Kong’s most popular beaches covered in huge amounts of rubbish.

The waste comprised everything from plastic bottles, disposable cutlery, shoes and children’s toys to detergent containers and medical syringes. Most had packaging with simplified Chinese characters indicating that it came from the mainland.

Polluted coastlines are not new to the city, but it was different this time. Popular beaches from Shek O on Hong Kong Island to the protected turtle nesting site of Sham Wan on Lamma Island were inundated in the stuff, prompting alarm from green groups and residents, and a demand for answers from the government. Volunteer beach clean-ups were organised across the city.

On July 4, conservation group Sea Shepherd posted a photo of the Wailingding dump, which many saw as a possible source of the problem. However, this was dismissed by both the Hong Kong and mainland governments.

It was later revealed that from July 1 to 9, Hong Kong government departments collected a staggering 78,000kg of rubbish from coastal areas, a far higher than average amount.

The deluge, the Environmental Protection Department said, was the result of heavy rain and flooding in parts of the mainland that had flushed household waste into the sea, only for it to be carried to Hong Kong by southwest monsoon winds and currents.

A government clean-up on south Lantau — led by Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, environment minister Wong Kam-sing and other officials — was hastily arranged and carried out on July 10.

Leung said he would discuss the problem with Guangdong as the Environmental Protection Department reported a “six to tenfold” increase in rubbish at certain beaches.

Concern was further raised on July 12 over medical waste washed ashore at Discovery Bay.

The island is known informally as both “Wailingding” and “Weilingding”, though the former is the official name in pinyin.