Waste is a problem that will not go away; indeed, the world will produce more and more as prosperity levels continue to rise. Hong Kong is no exception, and the present method of dealing with municipal solid waste, namely by dumping it in landfills, will no longer work in the near future.
Hong Kong's three landfills, in the New Territories, are nearing their maximum capacity and will be full in 2015, 2017 and 2019 respectively. The administration recognises this, and is on the right track in its multipronged approach to educate the community, change people's behaviour and invest in infrastructure.
We are keen to assist in formulating the most realistic, environmentally friendly solutions with a proven track record, and at the best value for the taxpayers' money. This is based on a wealth of experience in the Netherlands, which also lacks space, has a vocal population and a strong sense of environmental protection.
The government is proposing to extend the capacity of the three landfills while also building an integrated waste management facility, which would reduce the volume of waste as well as produce electricity during the incineration process. Thanks to advances in technology, these facilities have state-of-the-art pollution and odour control equipment, preventing harmful emissions from being released. The government proposes that the single facility be built on an artificial island near Shek Kwu Chau.
Landfills do pose significant environmental risks, including the leaching of toxic chemicals into the groundwater and the release of methane emissions from decomposing trash. Therefore, these extensions need to be temporary bridging solutions.
In the Netherlands, landfilling is only used for 2 per cent of the waste, with recycling (60 per cent) and waste-to-energy (38 per cent) used for the rest. Hong Kong must aim to reduce the landfills significantly through a combination of recycling and waste-to-energy facilities.
While the government's broad strategy seems sensible, the tactical execution could be reconsidered. So, instead of building one waste-to-energy facility (with a 3,000-tonnes-per-day capacity) in an environmentally sensitive area, with significant infrastructure constraints, three smaller facilities (each with a 1,500-tonne capacity) should instead be built at the existing landfill sites. Advantages to this approach include:
- The three landfills already have the infrastructure in place for transporting the waste, saving money;
- Tendering for three facilities instead of one will increase competition and ensure better bargaining power for the government;
- Construction of three smaller facilities simultaneously on existing land would be 18-24 months faster than building one larger facility on a still-to-be-built artificial island with no infrastructure in place;
- It is much easier to link electricity generated through the facilities to the grid than from an artificial island, (or alternatively it can be used for recycling facilities at the same locations);
- Having multiple facilities ensures a continuous incineration process even if maintenance renders one facility inactive;
- Building three new facilities next to the existing landfills will avoid a negative environmental impact on the areas and waters around Shek Kwu Chau.
Over time, the three landfills could be shrunk, with a very significant reduction of the environmental risks and impact.
Daniël de Blocq van Scheltinga is a board member of the Dutch Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong