Waste recyclers will be offered up to HK$5 million worth of grants for initiatives to boost their capacity and efficiency from a proposed HK$1 billion fund to promote recycling, the environment minister says.
But industry insiders questioned the fund's emphasis on capital spending and warned that the project's success would depend on how much of the money filtered through to frontline recycling workers.
Under the plan outlined by Secretary for the Environment Wong Kam-sing, companies will receive grants of up to HK$5 million, which they must match, for a two-year project to expand their businesses.
They can use the cash to buy equipment or vehicles or put it towards hiring staff, as long as the plan results in a reduction in the amount of waste sent to the city's fast-filling landfills.
Chambers representing recycling businesses can apply for up to HK$10 million to improve safety and environmental standards, for example by offering certification to companies or helping them train staff.
Wong revealed details of the fund yesterday, ahead of a meeting of the Legislative Council's public works subcommittee, which will next week examine government requests for funding to expand the Tseung Kwan O landfill and build a waste incinerator in Shek Kwu Chau.
But Wong denied that the fund was intended to quell lawmakers' opposition to the two schemes. "The fund suits the current circumstances and we believe we are stepping in at an appropriate time," he said.
If lawmakers approve the fund, a vetting committee will be set up to consider applications. Details of eligibility criteria have not yet been announced. It is unclear if recyclers who export waste will be eligible, or whether the funding will focus on materials such as plastic and glass, for which there are fewer commercial recyclers because they are less profitable than paper and metal.
But Wong said recyclers would have to target waste generated locally and file a business plan showing how they would divert waste from the landfills.
The government has long been criticised for not helping the recycling industry. It had refused to give firms direct financial help as doing so was against its non-interventionist philosophy. But it changed its mind, announcing the fund after lawmakers rejected funding requests for landfill expansions last year. Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying announced the HK$1 billion figure in his January policy address.
Wong ruled out a subsidy based on the amount of waste recycled as it was difficult to set a benchmark to calculate the level.
But Lau Yiu-shing, vice-chairman of the Recycle Materials and Re-production Business General Association, said the scheme's success would depend on whether it offered an incentive to frontline workers, those transporting goods, and even scavengers.
"Take the example of plastic waste; the bottleneck is never the machine. It is about how to pass on more material benefits to the frontline staff who do the actual waste collection and screening. We need to make sure they are better paid," said Lau, whose group represents 300 businesses.
Virginia Ip Chiu-ping, who operates a small community-based recycling station in Hung Hom, is concerned that small recyclers would be squeezed out since they lacked the expertise to draw up business plans. "The fund should target what we really need to address - which is high transport costs, high wages and insurance costs," she said.
Daniel Cheng Man-chung, of the Federation of Hong Kong Industries' environmental section, agreed that the matching fund should not focus only on capital investment. "The government should listen more to the industry and make sure the fund can cater to the diversified needs of the recyclers," he said.