Hong Kong's innovative thinking, wealth and technological prowess mean that many challenges that come our way can be overcome - some easily, some with hard work and determination. That has been shown time and again with impressive infrastructure projects that are the envy of other governments. But while we are able to engineer eye-catching buildings, subway systems and bridges, we are not so good at re-engineering a basic element of city living - the rubbish we produce, or specifically, the amount of it. With our landfills nearing capacity, we have no option other than to be less wasteful.
There is much work to do. In terms of municipal solid refuse, we are the most wasteful place in the world, with each of us producing 921kg in 2009. That is more than twice the amounts generated in Taiwan and South Korea, places with a similar development level and cultural background. It is not an achievement we can be proud of nor be willing to hold on to for long.
None of us can shirk our responsibility to generate less waste. The government has a significant role to play by promptly putting in place measures that have been on the table or planned for years, but left unimplemented for fear of upsetting various groups. Companies behind the products that we buy have to agree to strict packaging and recycling policies, while consumers have to do their bit by following the rules, thinking twice about what they buy and applying some of that can-do spirit that we are famous for.
We are at this juncture because so few of us have developed an environmental consciousness. Recycling of household rubbish, at so advanced a stage in other developed societies, remains rudimentary here. Hong Kong has limited space, which makes sustainability essential. The warnings have been ignored, and before the decade is out there will not be any room left in the three landfills.
The government's reluctance to respond decisively has not helped. It laid out a waste management framework in 1998, putting in place reduction targets that were repeatedly missed. Another scheme replaced it in 2005; it set out measures and a timetable to 2014 for reducing waste generation and increasing recycling. A landfill charge for construction waste has been highly effective, cutting the amounts being put into landfills by half, but a solid-waste levy and the building of incinerators remain on the drawing board.
No one wants to live next to a landfill or incinerator. Nonetheless, these have to be part of any effective management scheme. Incinerator technology has improved greatly since Hong Kong shut its last one down in 1997. The two that the government has planned for opening in 2016 and 2018 - if work on them starts soon - would produce few emissions and could double as power generators.
We need to move ahead on these plans now that the government's plan to extend the Tseung Kwan O landfill into the neighbouring country park has been abandoned amid public outrage. The authorities' lack of commitment led to the possibility of a legal battle over the powers of the executive and legislature after lawmakers voted the proposal down. Such reticence has to stop so that the needed measures can be enacted.
There is no need for more consultation. The overwhelming acceptance of the plastic bag levy proves that. It should be extended to all retail outlets. Voluntary schemes do not work when it comes to reducing waste. While we each have to be more responsible, laws, charges and rules are needed for the right mindset. We all need to pitch in. And we need leadership to show us the path forward.