Refuse mountain makes HK most wasteful place in world

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 October, 2010, 12:00am

Hong Kong's day as a manufacturing hub may be over, but it is still leading the world in producing one thing - refuse.

Last year, the city generated 6.45 million tonnes of rubbish, more than double the amount two decades ago. Translated into a per capita figure, each of its seven million people produced 921 kilograms of municipal solid waste - refuse excluding construction and hazardous waste.

That made Hong Kong the most wasteful place in the world - it was 91kg more per capita than Norway, which topped a list of 30 economies surveyed by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) last year. On average, Hong Kong people produced more than twice as much rubbish as those in Japan (410kg) and South Korea (380kg).

But to the bureaucrats, every cloud has a silver lining.

Speaking to legislators last week, Edward Yau Tang-wah, secretary for the environment, said the increase was a natural outcome of economic activities, population growth and the arrival of millions of tourists.

'Despite the rise in waste generation ... the waste dumped in landfill has been decreasing,' Yau said.

Hong Kong dumped 3.27 million tonnes of waste in landfills last year, a 1.3 per cent drop from 2008. Government officials hailed the decline as the result of 'years of effort in promoting waste separation'.

Of the 6.45 million tonnes of rubbish generated last year, only half ended up in landfills. The rest was dealt with through recycling and other means.

Although this may sound impressive, the figures are less convincing when compared with those of economies at a similar development stage and with an identical cultural background in the region - Taiwan and South Korea.

About half of the waste dumped in landfills is generated by the more than two million households. And of this, about 44 per cent is mixed food waste.

The commercial and industrial sectors are the second-largest source of waste, accounting for about 22 per cent. The rest is mixed construction and special waste.

Last year, Hong Kong dumped 1.28kg of refuse per day per head in landfills, compared with 0.52kg in Taiwan and 0.44kg in South Korea. Unlike these two places, Hong Kong has very limited options when it comes to refuse disposal. After recycling, landfills are the only option for handling waste since the city's last incinerator was shut down in 1997.

This change - under the statutory waste disposal plan in 1989 - is now blamed for the current dispute over expanding landfill. 'What is wrong with this policy is that it promotes indiscriminate use of landfills. It raised the question of why we have to rely on landfill alone to handle waste,' said Dr Chung Shan-shan, a waste management specialist with Baptist University.

Green NGOs have for years promoted the idea of reducing food wastage or finding other uses for leftovers.

In Lam Tin, housewife Kwok Tsoi Chau-leung opens a plastic container in her kitchen and adds her family's dinner leftovers.

On top, she scatters a layer of what looks like breadcrumbs. It's actually harmless bacteria - and it's an important step in the process because it stops the food from smelling as it decomposes. Two weeks later, this will be compost and Kwok will be able to use it to fertilise her plants.

'This is a great method. It is simple and there is little smell, but it can cut a third of the waste we dump,' said Kwok, who lives with her children and was given the 30cm box by her daughter, who works for environmental group Greeners Action.

More and more families like the Kwoks are trying to improve their environmental awareness and do their bit to reduce food waste.

'We've already tried to control the size of the portions we cook. But there's always going to be food waste that has to be disposed of,' she said.

Officials say that the problem of food waste is now so pressing that the government has had to resort to unpopular plans to extend landfills - and waste-to-energy incineration is next.

For the past two decades, nearly all the city's solid waste was buried in the landfill sites in Tuen Mun, Tseung Kwan O and Ta Kwu Ling - and the lack of alternatives means the landfills will eventually become full.

'While landfill is a necessity, it should be treated as a precious asset and not for daily use. These sites should be used to handle only waste that cannot be recycled,' Chung said.

Half of the waste generated in Hong Kong is now recovered by the city's recyclers - and mostly exported for reprocessing - but the rest is still thrown into landfills.

This mounting waste has been filling up the three landfill sites - which have a combined size of 270 hectares - at a rate much faster than anticipated. By 1997, the landfill sites held 16,000 tonnes of waste. That was four years sooner than expected, according to a 1989 forecast.

It rang alarm bells for officials, who tried to find extra space for waste, eventually coming up with some bold suggestions including a never-pursued idea of creating an island for refuse in the sea, south of Cheung Chau. The idea proved too drastic and highly unpopular at a time when public sentiment was against sea reclamation.

Attempts have also been made to revive waste incineration using the most advanced technology. It would be completely different from the system previously used - which was considered a health risk - and could even do better than the stringent emission standards of Europe or the United States.

It has taken more than 10 years for the government to make any progress on its study of waste incineration since then chief executive Tung Chee-hwa outlined the plan in his 1999 policy address.

But the Environment Bureau is yet to resolve the sensitive issues of whether the incinerator should be located in Tuen Mun or on the outlying island of Shek Kwu Chau - as well as how it might overcome local opposition to the plan.

In 1998, the city's quest to reduce waste was laid out in a framework by the then Environment and Food Bureau. It set the target of doubling the amount of waste recovered for recycling in 10 years.

That was also the year when the three types of recycling bins were introduced in public places.

But not only was the target not met, the waste dumped in landfills grew - and outstripped the target for recyclable waste by 25 per cent.

In 2005, the Environment, Transport and Works Bureau rolled out another policy framework for solid waste management, which ran until 2014 and set out measures and a timetable to gradually reduce waste generation and boost recycling.

Five years later, measures considered critical to reducing waste - such as charging fees for disposal and most of the product responsibility schemes - are still on the drawing board.

The only breakthrough achieved was the introduction in 2006 of a landfill charge for construction waste, which has reduced by 50 per cent the waste in landfill - it instead goes to sorting facilities for reclamation use locally and on the mainland.

It has been a long-time worry of green activists that the government would prefer to rely on bulk reduction technologies such as incinerators to dispose of waste over other controversial financial incentives or disincentives to reduce waste.

They also say the quest for a means of disposal is like putting the cart before the horse and overshadows the most crucial issue of how to prevent the creation of waste in the first place.

'We do not oppose waste incineration. We also agree that landfill is a necessity. But there are things the government needs to do first such as honouring what it has promised to boost waste recovery and recycling,' Hahn Chu Hon-keung, environmental affairs manager of Friends of the Earth, said.

Chu was worried that once an incinerator was built, government efforts to push forward recycling would slow down.

'What is an incinerator fed on? It feeds on recyclable waste like plastic and papers,' he said.

When the government decided to go for large-scale landfill sites and shut down the incinerator in 1989, it did acknowledge the importance of waste recovery and recycling.

'Strategies to limit the amount of waste must now be developed and the recovery and recycling of waste encouraged,' the government's waste disposal plan said.

But Chung from Baptist University said the reluctance of the government to assist or subsidise the waste recovery and recycling industry meant the policy statement was just empty words.

Lau Yiu-shing, a long-time recycler of waste and plastic, said the lack of government support was slowly killing the industry and if nothing is done the city could see recycling go into decline.

Lau has been battling to stay at the base in Kwun Tong where his business operates from, along with other recyclers. The area is set to be redeveloped as a waterfront promenade.

'There is no policy at all to support us and different departments are only taking care of their own business, no matter whether it is good or bad for the environment,' he said.

Lau said local recyclers were also facing stiff competition from overseas, as foreign recyclers often received government subsidies. 'That explains why sometimes waste paper shipped from the United States is cheaper than that collected locally.'

Green activists are pushing the government to start charging for solid waste disposal in a bid to discourage people - and businesses - from producing excessive waste and to encourage the separation of rubbish. They are also urging the government to expand the product responsibility scheme - from plastic bags, which now attract a levy, to other products such as drink bottles and electronic appliances.

But the idea of charging for waste disposal has never appealed to officials. In 1995, the government tried to ram through a landfill charging scheme for privately collected waste. Approved by the then governor-in-council, a law was passed by the legislature to impose a HK$45 per tonne charge on waste dumped in landfill.

In the face of strong opposition from waste truck operators, the scheme was eventually withdrawn and the law was repealed in 2004.

In the 2005 policy framework, environment officials pledged to introduce a solid waste charge by 2007. But four years later - and after a series of trials and studies - a concrete proposal or timetable has yet to materialise.

While green groups believe charging for waste disposal is necessary, Chung wonders how significantly different things would have been if a charge was introduced in 1995.

'It is unlikely the government would set the charge too high, but a low charge - which could just mean one or two dollars per day per person - is not at all a strong disincentive for creating waste,' she said.

Chung noted that the landfill charge in Britain was so high that the tax imposed on such dumping could be more than HK$400 per tonne.

On top of charging for disposal of waste, Chung urged environment officials to focus on specific generators of waste such as the commercial and industrial sector, which accounts for a quarter of the waste dumped in landfills - a figure that continues to mount.

She said businesses could play a significant role in reducing waste through better product design, packaging and inventory control. 'There is always a limit to the amount an individual can do, such as they have no choice over how much packaging a product has,' she said.

Chung is pessimistic about the future of waste disposal in Hong Kong. She said the problem was not just a natural outcome, as Yau said, but a political and social one, too.

'On the one hand, we have seen too much politicising of the issue, which has overshadowed rational discussion on the merits of each proposal ... but on the other hand, we don't see the political will of the government to do what it thinks is right.

'We need a leader who insists the right policies are pushed forward - even though he knows he will be extremely unpopular,' she said.

Growing pile

The amount of rubbish, in tonnes, that was generated by Hong Kong last year: 6.45m

Who should pay?

Greens are pushing the government to charge for waste disposal

A fee for landfills was introduced but the industry forced its scrapping. The charge, per tonne, in HK dollars, was: $45

Ray of hope

Hong Kong dumped 3.27 million tonnes of waste in landfills last year

That represents a percentage reduction on the total that was recorded for 2008 of: 1.3%