Legislators begin discussion on Monday about whether to support the government's waste-management measures. If they don't, this will be one of the new chief executive's early challenges when he takes office on July 1.
Hong Kong leads the world in producing refuse. In 2010, the city generated about 19,000 tonnes of rubbish a day. This means, on average, each of us produces some 2.7kg of municipal solid waste -refuse excluding construction and hazardous waste- a day. Even though Hong Kong recovers 52per cent of such waste, the rest still gets dumped. This puts a lot of pressure on our landfills: we will run out of landfill space by the middle of the decade even if we continue to increase our waste recovery rate to the government's target of 55per cent by 2015.
Our politicians have known about this state of affairs for years. The problem is Hong Kong did not act comprehensively and urgently enough, especially with efforts to reduce waste at source and put in place incineration as part of our management structure.
The current administration is chipping away here and there. For example, a plastic bag levy was introduced in 2009, and the government is currently consulting the public on introducing waste charging. The new government must give this a very high priority and be prepared to deal with vested interests' complaints if Hong Kong is to reduce waste at source more successfully.
What is going before legislators for funding is waste treatment. The proposed scheme involves reclamation, the building of a giant treatment facility, a desalination plant and submarine cables. The facility can incinerate 3,000 tonnes of waste per day, a very large quantity by world standards. It can also generate electricity for 100,000 households. This major project will take seven years from start to commissioning. Together with funds to extend the life of Hong Kong's three landfills, the total bill is an eye-popping HK$23billion.
Arguments against the proposal have focused on where to locate the treatment site and which technology to use. The government wants to create an island via reclamation near Shek Kwu Chau, south of Lantau. As for the type of technology, it has assessed various methods and settled on the safest choice - moving grate incineration - because of its wide use around the world for handling large quantities of waste.
Politicians are not technical experts and they have to depend on professionals for advice on the relative environmental benefits, certainty of success in implementing the different technologies, and the relative costs.
As for increasing landfill capacity, the lives of two of Hong Kong's three landfills can be extended for another six to 10 years beyond the middle of the decade. The government is also asking for money for a consultancy study of expansion plans for the third landfill.
If waste policies are not managed well, the next administration will have to deal with rubbish spillovers during its term. And the muck will be much worse than that which the contending candidates are now throwing at each other.
Christine Loh Kung-wai is chief executive of the think tank Civic Exchange. firstname.lastname@example.org