Hong Kong will spend at least HK$31 billion on waste-handling infrastructure in the next seven years, it was revealed yesterday.
And included in the measures will be a bitterly contested plan for an incinerator put forward by the previous administration, which has been stalled by opposition in Legco and the courts.
Moves spelled out yesterday by deputy environment minister Christine Loh Kung-wai gave the first clear indication that incineration remained a priority as the government seeks an ultimate solution to the city's waste crisis.
But the target date for commissioning the waste-burner - 2021 at the latest - is about three years later than proposed by the previous government.
Loh also gave no indication whether the proposed site had been changed and outlined plans for food-waste disposal, recycling and landfill expansion - which are also contentious issues.
Secretary for the Environment Wong Kam-sing said it would be irresponsible to leave discussion about an incinerator out of any debate over waste, although reduction remained the priority.
"We need to look at what the incinerator's role is holistically, how big it needs to be and what technology can be used," he said.
Environmentalists and residents were outraged by the previous government's plan for the incinerator on Shek Kwu Chau, an island between Cheung Chau and the Sokos.
Lawmakers rejected a funding request for the incinerator and for landfill expansions last year. The incinerator has also been challenged in court and a verdict is pending. Hong Kong is at the crossroads in dealing with its mounting waste crisis.
Its waste-generation rate is more than a third higher than cities such as Taipei and Seoul, and its landfills - now the only means of disposal - will be full by 2019.
Loh said at a forum organised by a media group: "Between now and 2020, Hong Kong will have to invest HK$31 billion plus in hardware. We need to continue these investments and we can't run away from it.
"And after the HK$31 billion, we might spend some more."
She said the food waste "hardware" would be ready between 2015 and 2017. Preparations for product responsibility schemes, recycling and landfill expansion would be complete between 2014 and 2020.
A timeframe of 2020 to 2021 was given to the waste-to-energy incinerator for solid waste. If endorsed, it would mean a decision would have to be made as a soon as next year.
Last year, Environmental Protection Department officials put the cost of two landfill expansions at more than HK$8.3 billion and an organic waste treatment plant at HK$500 million.
A 3,000-tonne incinerator would cost HK$14.9 billion.
Loh also said that consultation would start soon over a scheme to charge importers up to HK$1 for wine and beer bottles made from glass.
Friends of the Earth director Edwin Lau Che-feng said the new government appeared to understand the urgency of the problem. "We have wasted many years and failed to move forwards," he said.
But Lau questioned whether officials should review the planned siting of the incinerator on the island. He suggested that using a site in Tuen Mun would mean the waste-burner could be completed two years earlier and would also cause less environmental damage.
Martin Williams, an opponent of the island project, said an incinerator was "only a glorified bonfire" with toxic emissions.
But he said the new government was more open in discussing the issues, including the incineration technology.