Inspectors need to show compassion in Hong Kong litter crackdown
Their good work is sometimes spoiled by a lack of common sense, as shown by the recent case against a woman who tried to stop her trolley from overturning
The city’s anti-litter laws have served it more effectively in recent years thanks to greater emphasis on the detection and punishment of offenders. Credit is therefore due to government inspectors. But it remains a mystery why, after all this time, greater dedication to their task should still occasionally result in lapses of common sense that amount to an abuse of power.
Some 15 years ago, there was the case of a 55-year-old housewife who was fined HK$1,500 for littering after she dropped her house key while pulling her purse from a pocket, and later cleared by a court. And then there was uproar last year, when officers charged a 75-year-old woman – one of the “cardboard grannies” who scavenge for scraps of cardboard and paper to supplement a meagre income – for not having a hawker’s licence after she sold a piece of cardboard to a domestic helper for HK$1. A rival for the most ludicrous example of being so overzealous emerged last week. The Food and Environmental Hygiene Department told a 63-year-old woman it would waive a HK$1,500 fine after she temporarily unloaded a bag of rubbish onto the street to stop her trolley from overturning. According to her, an inspector from the department said: “If your bag of rubbish touches the ground, you have already violated he law.”
In a perfect world, amid all the wealth and affluence in Hong Kong, we would be spared the sight of an old woman picking through garbage. In the real world, amid poverty that shames the city, culture, pride and motivation come into play, with many elderly cherishing a sense of purpose, whether to make a little money or keep active. Concern group the Waste Picker Platform says a recent survey of 505 scavengers, mostly women over 60, found they earned an average of HK$716 a month to supplement welfare payments or other earnings. It is not uncommon for officers to confiscate trolleys and concern group member Tang Wing-him said they normally dumped them at refuse collection points. That surely is a sufficient deterrent, without resorting to trivial and technical enforcement. Inspectors are responsible for enforcing a socially important law, and applying it with common sense and compassion would enhance their public image and do nothing to detract from their effectiveness.