Waste has for too long been a dirty word in Hong Kong. The paucity of discussion has meant that our city faces a garbage crisis that can be resolved only through prompt and decisive action. Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying broadly outlined a viable solution in his election manifesto and the blueprint has been better defined in his policy address and briefings by his environmental team. While the precise details are being worked out, we need to accept that the time for procrastination has long passed.
With our three landfills reaching capacity in 2019, the waste management strategies that successive governments have raised, but failed to implement, can no longer be ignored. Each is controversial, which is why the problem has been passed from one administration to the next. But Leung realises that time is running out and he has hard choices to make. Protracted argument and debate are no longer options.
The landfills have to be extended; that is unfortunate, but given the amount of time other measures will take, necessary. Waste disposal charges, acceptable to 60 per cent of respondents to a public consultation last year, have to be set and implemented. That will affect the way we dispose of household garbage - a wide-ranging recycling policy will be a central part. Lastly, there has to be incineration.
In a city where land is in such short supply, the lack of concerted recycling and incineration is shocking. Both, coupled with landfills, are a necessary part of waste management. But given how unsophisticated our approach has been, the financial outlay will be high: deputy environment secretary Christine Loh Kung-wai put the amount that needs to be spent over the next seven years at a minimum of HK$31 billion. Showing that the perceived solutions have already been given considerable thought, she laid out a timetable for implementation of measures through to 2021, the latest targeted commissioning date for a waste-to-energy incinerator.
But timetables and costs are only part of an effective waste management strategy. There has to be community support, and for each envisaged step there will be those who resist. Hong Kong cannot continue with its wasteful ways, though; each of us has to be responsible for what we consume and the waste that we create. It will come at a cost, but the clean streets and sense of civic responsibility that result will be worth it.