Hong Kong prepares for the next battle in its war on waste
There is broad agreement about the need for residents to pay for rubbish disposal, but are the charges high enough to persuade the city to change its wasteful ways? And can the system be enforced effectively?
As classes are let out at La Salle College in Kowloon Tong on a cloudy March afternoon, neckties are loosened and students at the all-boys school head home.
But the day is not over yet for the school’s health and environmental protection team. Tongs in hand, today they are sorting through the roughly 180kg of waste produced daily by its 1,800 students and staff as part of a midway waste audit in a waste charging trial.
“It’s not too messy,” said team member Louis Kwok Long-fung, a Form One pupil. “But I’m quite surprised that a few bags of garbage had so little in them after sorting out recyclables”.
The team’s vice-chairman, Form Five student Addes Mak Ho-yeung, believes charging could be a “great way to lower waste production”.
“Economic factors will trigger people to think twice before disposal.”
Plastic bottles go into one bucket and bits of scrap paper and old newspapers in another. The biggest pail is reserved for kitchen waste, which like the rest of Hong Kong, eats up the biggest share of its municipal solid waste mix.
Some of it will go into the school’s composter to be used for its garden. What can’t be used will be sent with the rest of the waste to the overflowing landfills. In a way, it is a grim microcosm of the city’s wider waste problems.
Hong Kong’s municipal waste disposal has increased 80 per cent in the last 30 years, far outpacing the 34 per cent growth in population.
But the school’s management is more sanguine, especially in light of the government’s recently unveiled road map for a citywide waste charging scheme that it expects to come into full effect in late 2019.
Under the proposed arrangements unveiled last month, estates and businesses that use government refuse collection services will have to buy designated rubbish bags of various sizes to dispose of waste. The average three-person household is expected to pay around HK$33 to HK$51 a month.
Commercial and industrial buildings using private collection services will pay a landfill “gate fee”, based on the weight of their rubbish.
Environment secretary Wong Kam-sing believes charging will help induce behaviour change in waste disposal and drive the city towards his target of slashing per capita municipal solid waste by 40 per cent by 2022. A bill will be tabled at the Legislative Council shortly and charging is expected to come into effect in 2019.
But with detailed measures still lacking clarity – enforcement, assistance to low-income groups, a fair distribution of charges for commercial tenants paying per weight and monitoring of fly-tipping, to name a few – not everyone is impressed.
Questions still linger, for instance, about how effective enforcement will be in such a densely built up city with more than 41,000 residential buildings.
Federation of Hong Kong Property Management Industry president Davis Wong Kin-ping has warned of a possible 10 to 20 per cent rise in management fees as the staff of property management office companies take on more work ensuring compliance among residents.
“A lot of work will be imposed on management companies,” he said.
As non-designated rubbish bags can be rejected by collectors, estate managers would literally be left with a mess to deal with.
No charge will deter, for example, occupants from dumping their rubbish in non-designated bags in the middle of the night. Installation of CCTV or motion detecters would be a huge expense, while some fear a rise in fly-tipping.
Under the new charging scheme, officers from the Environmental Protection Department will be empowered to enter public areas of residential estates to work with estate managers and exercise enforcement power. Non-compliance will result in a HK$1,500 fixed penalty.
But even that’s got some of the government’s frontline employees worried. Earlier this month the Environmental Protection Inspectorate Association cried foul over the additional workload the department’s roughly 400 inspectors would have to take on to ensure compliance of the new levy.
In a letter addressed to Wong, the civil servants’ union wrote that they already had to deal with 21,600 pollution complaints a year with limited manpower. Cleaning contractors and refuse collectors for the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department have expressed similar concerns.
Even lawmakers, who mostly support the direction, are sceptical.
“Charging and the reduction of waste – where exactly is the statistical correlation ?” mused accountancy sector lawmaker Kenneth Leung in a recent environmental affairs panel meeting.
“The idea is you have a small charge that’s a bit higher than the price of regular rubbish bags out there. But I don’t really know you’ve have reached such a correlation ... you haven’t been able to convince me.”
Wong Kam-sing quickly hit back – Taipei City and South Korea had been able to achieve waste reductions of more than 30 per cent in the years after introducing quantity-based waste charging, he said. Charging schemes in Hong Kong had also led to a marked drop in plastic bags in landfills.
“Hong Kong people might actually be even more sensitive than the Taiwanese or South Koreans to such economic-linked policies,” Wong suggested.
If results of several recent waste charging trials are to be believed, there is some proof that ensuring “polluters pay” works.
Since La Salle began a trial waste levy scheme in October last year – largely mimicking the current arrangements of a quantity-based, per bag charging mechanism – there has been a marked drop in waste generation.
At the beginning of the scheme, the school required 237 rubbish bags of 20-litre capacity, 220 holding 50 litres and 333 large 100-litre bags. With just two months to go before the trial ends, they’ve cut the number of all bags by about 37 to 46 per cent each, along with better waste sorting, recycling and environmental campaigning.
Referencing the government’s latest proposed charging level of 11 cents per litre, the school would have reduced its waste charges by 38 per cent from HK$5,394 a month to HK$3,330 in a real-life charging scenario.
“Hong Kong has a very serious waste problem and we must reduce this at source. Waste charging is one of the most effective tools to achieve this objective,” said Angus Wong Chun-yin, policy advocacy manager at the World Green Organisation, the environmental group helping the school with the trial.
But the main challenge will be whether an extra HK$1 a day will be effective enough to spur behavioural change in a notoriously wasteful city.
Angus Ho Hon-wai, who heads the environmental group Greeners Action believed the charging level only met the “bare minimum”.
“Right now it’s 60 cents for a 5-litre bag but we’ve found that it should be closer to HK$1 and HK$3 [as opposed to HK$1.7] for a 15-litre bag, based on what people are prepared to pay.”
The average cost of a general 20-litre waste bag in Seoul is about HK$3, while a 14-litre bag in Taipei City costs about HK$1.27.
City University behavioural economist Dr Li King-king said: “An increase in the price of disposal could in theory lead people to be more careful about disposing of rubbish. But the efficacy is an empirical question.
“It depends on motivation. If there is no charge, will people acknowledge that reducing waste helps the environment? If not, people could just pay the cost to dump more. Essentially, imposing a charge could crowd out the original motivation.”
He cited the classic study of Israeli parents being more late in picking their children up from school despite the imposition of a charge as they felt they could pay to be late.
“The challenge is that the price needs to be high enough to induce behavioural change, but setting it too high would be unacceptable.”
In 2015 the average Hongkonger sent 1.39kg of municipal solid waste into landfills per day, marking a 3 per cent rise from the year before and the highest level in 10 years.
But efforts to reduce domestic waste do seem to be working.
“If we take out all the recoverable items from our rubbish bin, we can use a 20-litre rubbish bag for an entire week,” said housewife Gigi Ho, who lives with her husband and son in their 401 sq ft flat at the private Amoy Gardens estate in Kowloon Bay.
Fortunately for her, the estate is well equipped with recycling amenities. Every day Ho and other residents take their kitchen waste to a communal podium depot.
Every night up to 100kg of food waste is dumped into a food composter and turned into compost, which is then packed into empty lard buckets and sent to a food production company in the New Territories.
Wilson Yip Hing-kwok, a district councillor and chairman of the estate’s owners’ committee, said the goal was to install a composter “at every block”. Recycling facilities for everything from clothes and glass bottles to used batteries are made accessible and hygienic. “The key is to make the area as clean and nice as possible.”
For large mixed-use private developments like Discovery Bay, it is still not even clear what charging method will be used. The estate management currently hauls rubbish from the estate’s houses to a centralised collection point, where the FEHD then takes it to the landfill.
But with its diverse types of housing ranging from garden houses to high-rises, district councillor Amy Yung Wing-sheung said the fairest way to charge was still a quantity-based mechanism in which households paid for what they threw out.
The best mechanism she said was for management companies to provide the bags and charge each household for them in their management fees accordingly, rather than a general increase in fees across the board.
Councillors Yung and Yip agreed that enforcement would still be the biggest challenge.
In the end, civic awareness and public education, not punitive measures, will be key to genuine waste reduction.