The government's latest attempt to limit the immense amount of waste generated by Hongkongers is due to begin shortly, with a public consultation to gauge the public's appetite for paying a rubbish disposal fee.
The consultation document, due to be released this week, will explain the purpose and methods of levying a fee for collecting and disposing of rubbish - although it's probably too early to suggest an exact fee level, according to a person familiar with the situation. 'The issue goes well beyond how much will be charged,' the person said. 'It is also about overhauling the way people handle their household waste.'
The consultation document will highlight different ways of charging - including a fee based on the volume of rubbish discarded or a fixed fee like government rates. The latter, however, provides little incentive for people to cut back on their rubbish.
Taipei and South Korea, among other places, have cut their disposed waste by up to half by charging for garbage bags. In Taipei, a five-litre bag costs 58 HK cents.
A survey in 2009 by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found Hongkongers were the most wasteful among 30 economies surveyed, producing twice as much rubbish per capita (921kg) as people in Japan (410kg) and South Korea (380kg).
Officials hope a dumping fee will give residents an incentive to separate their rubbish before disposal. There is no law in Hong Kong requiring people to do so.
One thorny issue to be tackled is how to prevent illegal waste dumping after a charge is introduced. Another question is whether streets should continue to have rubbish bins, where people might dump waste to avoid the charge. Any changes would also have to address whether waste collection officers should be authorised to refuse to handle rubbish that has not been dealt with in the right way.
The city disposes of an average of about 3.3 million tonnes of solid waste - excluding construction waste, for which charges are levied - in landfills every year. But the landfills will be full within this decade.
About one-third of the rubbish, or 3,000 tonnes a day, is kitchen and food waste.
Currently, the public does not pay directly for dumped rubbish; the expense, up to an estimated HK$1.8 billion per year, is borne largely by the government.
It costs the Environmental Protection Department HK$337 per tonne, or 33 cents per kilogram, to haul rubbish from waste transfer stations to landfills. The figure rises to HK$549 per tonne, or 55 cents per kilogram, if collection costs incurred by the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department are included.
Michelle Au Wing-tze, the senior environmental affairs officer with Friends of the Earth (HK), said most places that charged for waste collection did not aim to recoup all costs. A fee need not create a heavy financial burden if the main goal was to get people to sort their rubbish, particularly kitchen waste, she said. Even so, the new system would probably encounter some difficulties, she said.
'It is too convenient for people to dump their rubbish now. It is all just steps away from homes. With a charge, that might have to be changed, too.'
In 2005, the Environmental Protection Department published a waste policy framework that aimed to introduce a rubbish fee by 2007. But that failed to happen as it said more studies were needed. Three years later, it launched an 18-month study on the ways of collecting the fee. But still, the department could not set out the way forward.
Instead, the government has pushed forward plans to incinerate waste and expand landfills. Last month, the government's environmental advisory body approved of plans to build the world's largest incinerator, at a cost of between HK$8 billion and HK$13 billion, on Shek Kwu Chau, an island south of Lantau.
The percentage of the city's annual waste which could be handled by three incinerators the government seeks to build by 2015