Can Hong Kong now expect a bolder push to reduce waste under Carrie Lam’s government?

Edwin Lau says while we’ve seen improvements in our air and water quality, the city is grappling with a growing waste problem that needs some of the innovative solutions Lam has promised

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 July, 2017, 11:12am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 July, 2017, 6:37pm

A friendlier atmosphere prevailed last week at the first Legislative Council meeting attended by our new chief executive, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor. It seems a good start for Hong Kong.

Lam has pledged that she and her principal officials will build a better Hong Kong by being “innovative”, “interactive” and “collaborative”. She seems well aware of the weaknesses of the last administration.

Watch: Carrie Lam answers lawmakers’ questions

So we should expect Wong Kam-sing, whom Lam reappointed as secretary for the environment, to make good on her pledge. The public needs to hear from him what innovative measures he is proposing to address our critical environmental problems.

Twenty years after the handover, some environmental problems in Hong Kong, such as air and water pollution, have seen improvements. But others have become worse.

The city’s waste problem is an example of the latter. To be fair, Wong has worked hard to promote waste reduction at source. Measures have included events to raise public awareness and the launch in 2013 of the Hong Kong Blueprint for Sustainable Use of Resources. Despite these efforts, however, we’re throwing out more waste than before; the per capita daily disposal rate of 1.34kg in 1997 increased to 1.39kg in 2015.

The blueprint has set targets of 1kg by this year, and 0.8kg by 2022 – I doubt we’ll meet these if the government does not change its mindset and adopt some innovative policies.

Meanwhile, the recycling rate of our municipal solid waste climbed from 33 per cent in 1997 to 52 per cent in 2010, only to fall back to 35 per cent in 2015. So there has been virtually no improvement.

The decline in recycling rates for plastic waste is even more disappointing. In 2010, some 69 per cent of such waste, or 1,577,000 tonnes, was recycled; in 2015, only 10.5 per cent (or 93,900 tonnes) was recycled. This means that the majority of our plastic waste is ending up in landfills and other places, such as beaches and the sea.

Watch: Hong Kong students learn the basics of recycling and reducing their garbage

Hong Kong prepares for the next battle in its war on waste

Waste management has been a perennial challenge for the Hong Kong government. Since the handover, successive administrations have rolled out three plans: the Waste Reduction Framework Plan (1998-2007); A Policy Framework for the Management of Municipal Solid Waste in Hong Kong (2005-2014); and the 2013 blueprint, which is to last until 2022.

Edward Yau Tang-wah, the environment minister from 2007 to 2012, did not launch any policy plan during his tenure. Of course, he was supposed to implement the policies set out by his predecessor, but his progress and achievements were questionable.

However, it is true that, during his term and as a result of vigorous lobbying by green groups, the first producer responsibility legislation was approved by Legco in 2009 mandating a levy of 50 cents per plastic shopping bag taken at supermarkets and certain designated stores.

Watch: Can Hong Kong consumers say no to plastics?

The zero-waste challenge in Hong Kong: we try to live plastic-free for a week

Though waste charging was being discussed as a possible measure, Yau failed to put forward a legislative proposal on the issue, merely conducting a public consultation on it in 2012, a few months before he left office. The lack of a clear policy on waste charging goes a long way to explaining the disappointing situation today.

We now expect Wong to be innovative and bold, as promised by the chief executive, to rectify the omissions of the past and resolve Hong Kong’s critical waste problems. I am hopeful Wong will deliver solid environmental improvements to regain public trust.

Edwin Lau Che-feng is executive director of The Green Earth. [email protected]