How Hong Kong can solve its waste crisis and become the Silicon Valley of recycling

  • Jill Baker says the city, with its enviable budget surpluses, has the resources to clean up its environment and lead the circular economy. A waste charging scheme has been announced, and ‘reverse vending machines’ are being considered
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 January, 2019, 10:26am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 January, 2019, 10:29pm

Many in Hong Kong had feelings of déjà vu or perhaps quiet embarrassment when the solid waste bill currently before the Legislative Council was announced. After revealing the plan to charge households and commercial establishments for waste disposal, Environment Secretary Wong Kam-sing was visibly defensive. He shouldn’t be. This has the makings of a great plan. That it has been so long coming shouldn’t blind us to the positive contribution it could make.

The plan means to encourage people to throw away fewer things, by imposing a charge by bag or weight. It will provide a fund that could be used to explore waste-to-energy possibilities and develop state-of-the-art technologies to recycle plastic and food waste, which would in turn reduce the waste put out in garbage bags. The grass-roots recycling efforts already under way suggest that many people are eager to do more to reduce waste. Hong Kong should clean up its environment and could become a leader in the circular economy.

If you can measure it, you can manage it. And when it is weighed and priced, most of us tend to pay attention. Under the scheme, an estimated monthly charge of HK$30 to HK$50 for a family of three, while modest, will go a long way to reducing the overflow to landfills. After getting over the resentment of paying for designated garbage bags, Hongkongers will come to see the merits of the scheme. The charge is not just a deterrent to creating waste, but also revenue that goes into the development of recycling.

Indeed, Hong Kong has reason to be cheerful. Wong recently presided over the roll-out of Hong Kong’s e-waste recycling initiative. The producer responsibility scheme, which went into effect last August, aims to ensure the roughly 70,000 tonnes of electronic waste Hong Kong generates annually – unwanted air conditioners, washing machines, computers and the like – do not end up polluting other countries or brownfield sites in the New Territories. By mandating retailers to bear the costs of removing and recycling old devices, the government has nimbly dealt with the problem.

So, is it crazy to think Hong Kong can have an even greater success with waste charging? Not at all. A Legco brief proposes that the money raised from waste charging be redirected into the improvement of recycling. An additional HK$300 million to HK$400 million will be provided to support recycling work for fiscal 2019-2020, and the budget will go up to between HK$800 million and HK$1 billion from the year the waste charging scheme is implemented.

To boost recycling, refund Hongkongers 20 cents per plastic bottle

Currently, most of Hong Kong’s recycling bins only accept two kinds of plastics, like drink bottles and shampoo containers. Hong Kong does not yet have the infrastructure to sort and deal with multiple plastic types. It also lacks the ability to turn waste into the high-grade plastic pellets suitable for sale to the mainland. The waste charging bill includes funding for free collection of recyclable plastics from residential sources and food waste from all sources.

The Environmental Protection Department is studying the feasibility of “reverse vending machines”, which dispense cash for used plastic bottles, and considering a producer responsibility scheme for such containers. Hong Kong could learn from the mainland, where start-up Xiaohuanggou has rolled out a network of smart trash cans that accept a variety of materials, including paper, plastic and metal, in exchange for rebates via mobile wallets.

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The waste charging bill includes funding for food waste recovery. Co-digestion of food waste creates biogas, and enough energy to run the system itself. Plans for both a co-digestion facility and a food waste-to-energy plant are highlighted in Hong Kong’s Climate Action Plan.

Separately, Hong Kong has given the green light to a HK$18.2 billion garbage incinerator on Shek Kwu Chau. The waste-to-energy facility is understandably controversial, and little more than a stopgap measure. It is projected to supply energy to 100,000 households, reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 400,000 tonnes a year, and also reduce the volume of waste sent to landfills.

Recycling waste water is in Hong Kong’s interest

Although the plant is designed to include a sorting system to recover recyclables, there is little in the waste charging scheme that connects the incinerator to the existing recycling and collection infrastructure. By contrast, Singapore’s Parliament has mandated a futuristic pneumatic waste conveyance system. Waste will be sorted at source and then sucked through underground pipes to a central collection area, which eliminates the need for dumpsters and other garbage collection areas. In Hong Kong, the strong civil society should play an important role in making sure Hong Kong’s recycling efforts evolve in a way that makes sense and uses the best, most cost-effective technologies.

Waste charging is an idea whose time has come. So is the idea that Hong Kong can be a showcase for best practices in the circular economy. Hong Kong’s sizeable economy and enviable budget surpluses allow it to be an innovator in sustainable infrastructure. The growing grass-roots recycling efforts show public support for far-reaching actions. What we need is strong, continuing political commitment to ensure a more environmentally sound future.

Jill Baker is an adjunct fellow at the Asia Business Council and a research adviser at Terra Alpha Investments