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Hong Kong environmental issues

Waste disposal charge is an investment in Hong Kong’s future

With subsidies for the needy, prepaid garbage bags can boost recycling and reduce the amount of rubbish going into our overflowing landfills

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 31 October, 2017, 1:24am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 31 October, 2017, 1:24am

While our population has grown by 34 per cent over the past 30 years, the amount of solid municipal waste it generates has grown by 84 per cent. The cost of disposing of tens of thousands of tonnes every day is soaring. If it is to be reined in, a new approach is needed to target the volume of waste. Polluter pays is the mechanism of choice to induce households and businesses to embrace behavioural changes and responsible waste disposal.

Under the government’s original plan, 50 per cent of all the city’s waste would go into a range of prepaid plastic bags, with the rest to be levied through controversial landfill fees to be recovered by waste contractors from clients. It sounded complicated and difficult to enforce equitably through effective recovery. Thankfully, the government has listened to feedback from community consultations and refocused its sights on a more uniform approach. Under an expanded polluter pays scheme to be put to lawmakers, most of the city’s waste will now go into one of nine types of bag, varying in size and priced at an average of 11 cents a litre. “We estimate about 80 per cent of waste will be charged through the purchase of prepaid designated garbage bags,” environment minister Wong Kam-sing said.

Lawmakers urge incentives, not only punishments, in Hong Kong’s waste charging scheme

Green groups are delighted, for two reasons. Charging too many of the city’s 2.5 million households by the building block is unlikely to be environmentally efficient; and a six-month trial conducted by Greeners Action at a Tai Po Home Ownership Scheme estate found that prepaid bags reduced monthly rubbish disposal by 24 per cent and increased the recycling of 11 materials by 86 per cent.

It is estimated that a family of three will have to pay between HK$33 and HK$51 a month, or just a few hundred dollars a year compared with a proposed fine of HK$1,500 for not using the government-approved, prepaid disposal bags. At the end of the day, these are all just numbers. What happens when waste charging kicks off in the second half of 2019 at the earliest, with the aim of cutting 40 per cent of rubbish by 2022, is another matter.

‘Polluter pays’ waste scheme expanded with 80 per cent of Hong Kong’s rubbish going into prepaid bags

With many blocks not under management companies or owners’ corporations, enforcement will be a challenge. This makes education in the benefits of compliance important, as proved to be the case with the benefits of the plastic bag levy. The government’s plan to give low-income households a HK$10 monthly subsidy to help pay for the waste bags is welcome.

Further exploration of subsidies and exemptions for the needy are worth exploring to lift compliance. The cost would be an investment in Hong Kong’s future as a liveable city.