Hong Kong’s waste problem: a stinking trail of missed targets, data errors and misdirected efforts
Tom Yam says a government audit of Hong Kong’s waste reduction efforts makes clear who is to blame for our growing mountain of rubbish
If an organisation misses targets, mangles statistics, mismanages capital assets, underestimates costs, undertakes trifling projects and underperforms in a critical task year after year, will it survive?
The answer is a resounding “yes” if it is the Environmental Protection Department.
The Audit Commission recently issued a report on the government’s management of the garbage, officially known as municipal solid waste, which Hong Kong produced over the decade to 2015. The Environmental Protection Department is responsible for waste management and has an annual budget of HK$2.05 billion to do the job.
By every measure, including the department’s own as set out in its Policy Framework for the Management of Municipal Solid Waste (2005-2014), and the Hong Kong Blueprint for Sustainable Use of Resources (2013-2022), it fell short.
Key performance indicators for waste management have all deteriorated. Per capita waste disposed daily increased from 1.27kg in 2011 to 1.35kg in 2014. Waste recovered and recycled dropped from 49 per cent in 2009 to 37 per cent in 2013. Food waste increased from 3,227 tonnes per day in 2004 to 3,648 tonnes in 2013.
The policy framework set a target of disposing of 25 per cent of waste in landfills by 2014. As of 2013, 63 per cent was still dumped in landfills.
The department’s data, used to manage ongoing programmes, is rubbish (pun intended). The Audit Commission cites a litany of statistical errors. The amount of waste recovered for recycling was inflated because the department included waste imported for processing. Its forecast of a 50 per cent drop in food waste from school lunches was overstated because only 12 per cent of students ate lunch in school. It could produce no quantifiable data to explain its changing assumptions about the serviceable life of the landfills. It now claims that all landfills will be full by 2018. The Audit Commission believes they should last some years beyond 2018.
The department priced phrase 1 of the Organic Waste Treatment Facilities, to recycle mainly food waste, at HK$489 million in 2010. But because it omitted or significantly underestimated the cost of some components, the cost surged to HK$1.589 billion in 2014.
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Target dates for rolling out the producer responsibility scheme for six products, based on the “polluter pays” principle, have not been met. Only the first two phases of the plastic shopping bag levy have been implemented, in 2009 and 2015, six to eight years behind target. The scheme has yet to be implemented for the other five products – waste electrical and electronic equipment, vehicle tyres, glass bottles, packaging materials and rechargeable batteries.
Only four of the 12 government departments have signed up to the Food Wise Hong Kong Campaign, which promotes reduction of food waste, two years after its launch.
With great fanfare, the department did launch a series of waste reduction, recovery and recycling initiatives. Their impact, however, has been inconsequential. Net reduction of plastic shopping bags disposed of in landfills in 2009-2013 was 11,544 tonnes, or an infinitesimal amount of total waste disposed.
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As of June, only 4.6 per cent of the 43,091 households in 16 public rental housing estates were taking part in the food waste recycling scheme, fewer than half the department’s 10 per cent estimate. Though not discussed in the Audit Commission’s report, the recyclable waste collected in the three-colour recycling bins is no more than 900 tonnes per year, or 0.02 per cent of the waste generated.
The HK$308 million EcoPark in Tuen Mun was trumpeted as a hi-tech hub to develop a recycling industry. But the industry remains at the lowest rung of the value-added ladder, mainly collecting, baling and packaging waste materials. One operator started 24 months later than stipulated in the tenancy agreement. In another lot, operations started five years later. From August 2008 to June 2015, a HK$16 million pilot food waste treatment plant was operating at only 22 per cent of capacity.
Despite all these failings, here’s where the department’s record truly stinks: the Audit Commission’s 2015 report on the dismal state of Hong Kong’s waste management echoes its 2008 report. At the time, the Legislative Council’s Public Accounts Committee expressed serious concern over the management of the Environmental Protection Department as well as “deep regret and sadness that the secretary for the environment lacks a sense of urgency and is not proactive enough” in tackling the problem of municipal solid waste. Seven years later, nothing has changed.
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The audit report describes a mismanaged organisation that lacks coordination with other government departments, produces inaccurate information and statistics, and engages in inconsequential efforts to tackle waste reduction and recycling. It cannot effectively manage ongoing programmes, resulting in missed targets and deteriorating performance.
In the private sector, a chief executive accountable for such rotten results would have been fired. Yet the previous environment secretary, Edward Yau Tang-wah, is now director of the Chief Executive’s Office. The current one, Wong Kam-sing, is this week attending the UN climate change conference in Paris. The Environmental Protection Department’s director, Anissa Wong Sean-yee, has been in her job since 2006. Despite the audit report, all three are likely to keep their highly paid jobs in Hong Kong’s non-accountable government.
Tom Yam is a Hong Kong-based management consultant. He holds a doctorate in electrical engineering and an MBA from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania