Help polluters resolve technical problems

The Conservancy Association is concerned about the recent debate on sewage charges. The debate, largely between the Government on the one side and some legislators and some restaurants on the other side, has missed the essence of the Polluters Pay Principle (PPP) underlying the sewage charge scheme.

The views and concerns expressed by some restaurants and by many individuals of the community indicated in attitudinal surveys are understandable. While few, if anybody, will challenge the Polluter Pays Principle, most people will not consider themselves as polluters and those who admit that they are polluters try to negotiate for a postponement and/or lowering of the level of charging, using all sorts of reasons such as economic hardship, inflation etc. In other words, people don't want to pay for something which they have enjoyed free of charge in the past.

Indeed, the Polluter Pays Principle is designed to make use of the desire to find a low-cost solution when people and companies incorporate the environmental cost of their activities. They will be encouraged to adopt alternative ways, for example, adopting a cleaner production process and technology if such a process and the technology cost less. The beauty of making polluters pay, according to environmental economists, is the most efficient use of community resources in achieving the same environmental targets since polluters capable of mitigating environmental problems at a lower cost are encouraged to cut pollution. This also provides flexibility and encourages innovations in environmental technology and measures.

Hong Kong is not alone in applying the PPP. Many countries around the world have already developed and implemented charging schemes to make companies and individuals responsible for their pollution. China, for example, has had a PPP through charging since 1982 and the current charging schedule for pollution exceeding the discharge/emission standard has been in force since 1991, covering water, air and noise pollution. Take the example of bleaching and dyeing in a woven fabric factory which produces 2,000 tonnes per month of wastewater. The effluent charge would cost the factory HK$333 if the operation took place in China.

In Hong Kong, the factory will need to pay HK$4,688, or 14 times of that in China. The fact that Hong Kong's per capita gross domestic product (GDP) is about 38-fold that of China suggests that the level of sewage charge in Hong Kong is lower than that of China in real cost terms. China has also had a sewage charge of 0.05 renminbi per tonne of wastewater since 1993. If charge levels were proportional to ability to pay as indicated by per capita GDP, the level of sewage charge in Hong Kong should be around HK$1.8 per tonne (50 per cent higher), instead of HK$1.2 per tonne under the current scheme.

The concern of the Government is understandable. Its primary concern is to raise sufficient revenue for the operation and maintenance cost of the sewage system which, in its mind, will alleviate the water pollution problem in Hong Kong. The primary objectives of the PPP, and indeed any environmental policy, are to encourage the reduction of pollution at source in the most cost-effective way. The Government should work on two fronts: firstly, to regularly review the effectiveness of the charging scheme and raise the charging level (a static charging level would with inflation, over time, be unable to encourage polluters to reduce pollution); secondly, to provide assistance to polluters to reduce pollution.

For example, the booklet Grease Traps for Restaurants and Food Processors, published by the Environmental Protection Department should be updated and revised to indicate ways to reduce pollution at source and the effects on the sewage charge. The Government should take a proactive role in reaching out and helping polluters to resolve the technical management problems that hinder the reduction of pollution.

LO WAI-YAN Executive Secretary The Conservancy Association