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Hong Kong environmental issues

Why Hong Kong’s war on waste must go beyond ‘polluter pays’ to the art of persuasion

Madan Pillutla says while Hong Kong will start charging for waste next year, social nudges using behavioural sciences could prove more effective in inspiring good behaviour on rubbish

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 January, 2018, 6:16pm
UPDATED : Monday, 01 January, 2018, 9:22pm

Christmas and the New Year are always a time of excess. Inevitably, the quantities of discarded goods and materials balloon, as drink and food containers are discarded and reams of wrapping paper wind up in rubbish bins.

Hong Kong’s tendency to generate more trash during the festive season is matched by the declining capacity of its landfills. Environmental Protection Department statistics reveal as much as 15,332 tonnes of solid waste was disposed of daily at landfills in 2016, an increase of 1.5 per cent from the previous year. The disposal rate of municipal solid waste was 1.41kg per person every day, the highest since 1998.

It seems that a long-running campaign encouraging people to “reduce, reuse and recycle” has not been entirely effective. Only 1.91 million tonnes of municipal solid waste recyclables were recovered, a 5.9 per cent drop from 2015.

Hong Kong will introduce municipal solid waste charging in 2019. It has been pointed out that the government has so far only seriously considered punitive charges, an approach which has been widely criticised.

Hong Kong is choking on waste

Waste disposal charge will cost a typical Hong Kong family HK$51 a month

Do punitive measures such as “polluter pays” really change behaviour? Punishing with fines could encourage people to duck responsibility and to pursue illegal means of rubbish disposal, such as fly-tipping. Behavioural science may offer more effective ways to bring about change, with initiatives that should drive people to produce less waste and be more thoughtful about its disposal.

Fines could encourage people to duck responsibility and pursue illegal means

Social psychologist Robert Cialdini has discussed how behavioural norms can facilitate good behaviour. He and his colleagues have shown how drawing attention to the fact that very few people littered the streets can reduce littering behaviour. Another example of drawing attention to an appropriate norm is to tell people not to litter (or steal or pollute), rather than bemoan the fact that everyone else is: telling people that too many are littering encourages rather than deters them.

Hong Kong unveils waste charging structure

What Hong Kong needs to do to recycle more

Another idea from the behavioural sciences is to use social comparisons to encourage desirable behaviour. If localities are given recognition and awards (better equipment for local playgrounds, for instance) for recycling, this would encourage residents to try to gain them. These collective rewards would also make people police each other on waste generation, as they would want their neighbourhood to win.

The more we recycle and responsibly dispose of waste, the more landfill space is saved, and the environment gains. However conscious or positively inclined, communities still need to be guided towards doing what’s right.

Madan Pillutla is professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School