The outgoing government has bowed to political reality by abandoning its request for financing for a controversial waste incinerator at the first legislative hurdle- an environmental panel of lawmakers. Incoming chief executive Leung Chun-ying had already pre-empted the plan by vowing to review the role of incineration in a waste-disposal strategy. As a result, lawmakers across the political spectrum withheld support for an incinerator and landfill expansion in favour of leaving the issue to the next government.
That does not mean a major role for incineration in tackling Hong Kong's mounting waste problem is off the agenda. There are three ways of dealing with waste - landfills, incineration and recycling, which remains at a rudimentary stage in this city. None can solve the problem without integration with the other two, although incineration, using the latest technology, alongside recycling may be the best way forward.
As lawmakers and waste experts have observed, putting off a decision for up to a year would not be a disaster. The landfills now used for burying our waste will not be filled until 2018. But given the lead times for building an incinerator and expanding landfills, the new government will have to bite the bullet sooner rather than later.
The outgoing government fast-tracked its incinerator plan after lawmakers refused to approve the expansion of the Tseung Kwan O landfill by five hectares into the adjacent Clearwater Bay Country Park. As a result, the government lurched from one confrontation with local opposition to another. But lack of progress cannot all be blamed on the not-in-my-backyard syndrome. Local opponents of a HK$15 billion plan to put an incinerator on Shek Kwu Chau off the south coast of Lantau Island found support from the green movement over environmental issues. And the incinerator did not form part of a viable integrated waste strategy. The ultimate environmental issue in this case is how one of the world's most wasteful societies, in terms of municipal solid refuse per capita, is going to dispose of waste. For the Leung administration, developing a credible integrated strategy, with a recycling culture at the centre, must be a priority. This will call for political skill and persuasion in selling it to the community and lawmakers. Public consultation will not find consensus - only the need for strong leadership.
Recycling that begins with sorting of refuse at source is key to credibility. We have been used to washing our hands of our rubbish for too long. As a result we lag behind cities we should be trying to emulate - like Tokyo and Taipei - that have fewer constraints on space, but have convinced their communities that recycling coupled with incineration is the way forward. Incineration may not be an alternative in itself to landfill, but it is integral to a waste programme based on recycling.