Lawmakers opposing the government's waste incineration plans owed the public an explanation on why a city facing a mounting waste crisis must wait longer for a solution - and should offer their practical alternatives - the environment minister says.
In an exclusive interview with the South China Morning Post, Edward Yau Tang-wah said the waste issue deserved rational and objective discussion but had been politicised as major political parties expressed reservations about it.
But he refrained from saying if chief executive-elect Leung Chun-ying had meddled in his waste policy after Leung announced a 'zero' quota for mainland mothers giving birth in Hong Kong private hospitals from next year. Both policies have implications for the transition of the old and new administrations and legislatures.
Yau said those politicians who delayed or disapproved of his plans should explain to the public why they would need to put up with more landfilling of waste equivalent to seven Exchange Square towers a year.
'Will waiting a few more months solve the problem?' he asked. 'Why do we have to wait? Is it just because of a single remark by the chief executive-elect? Is it because of the election? Or is it due to the fact Hong Kong has not achieved the highest recycling rate in the world ... society deserves a reason why we have to wait.'
Yau said the city could not afford any further delay, as the quest for waste solutions had started more than a decade ago and there had been intensive discussion already.
He also said he had never heard of instructions from the chief executive-elect to halt the projects. He would not say if he had met Leung on the issue, but stressed that Leung's platform focused on waste reduction, as the current policy did, and did not exclude incineration. 'It is a task of necessity no matter who is in charge,' said Yau, adding that he 'hoped and was confident' that the next administration would respect the fact.
He warned that further delays might put Hong Kong in a similar situation to the Italian city of Naples, where insufficient waste facilities resulted in rubbish being dumped in the streets.
'The longer we put it off, the longer we have to ask what method will we adopt, the more likely we will be of living the example of what Naples faced,' he said.
While the government was willing to give more in-depth explanations for the need for the facilities, site selection for the incinerator and its waste reduction policies, Yau said lawmakers should explain to the public why they must wait for the government's multi-pronged waste solution that includes incineration, landfill and recycling.
Yau admitted he had no contingency plan if the funding request for the HK$15 billion incineration project at Shek Kwu Chau was blocked. 'Do we really have a plan B, when there is already a three-pronged strategy? Perhaps the plan B is just waiting to see the landfill becoming full. Everyone opposing our plan should ask themselves what is their plan B.'
Yau said there was no magic wand for the situation as relying solely on waste reduction was unrealistic. Even Germany, whose recycling rate was now more than 60 per cent, still relied on incineration. He said the limited capacity of the first incinerator meant only 17 per cent of the city's waste would be burnt, with the remainder needing other forms of disposal, including landfill.
He also believed it was impractical to build the incinerator after waste charging was introduced. Yau felt encouraged that more than half of the people in a public consultation on charging supported the idea, but did not commit himself to a road map or timetable on it, only agreeing to take the issue further. He refused to say if he had been approached to stay in the next government or if he had any interest in doing so.
The amount, in Hong Kong dollars, Edward Yau's bureau is seeking to build the waste incinerator at Shek Kwu Chau