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Hong Kong environmental issues

Cash boost to help Hong Kong recyclers when mainland waste import ban kicks in

City’s Recycling Fund to help businesses buy equipment to make plastic pellets, which they will still be able to sell across the border

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 September, 2017, 10:01pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 September, 2017, 1:16pm

A Hong Kong green fund has set aside HK$20 million to help the city’s recyclers ride out a fall in business expected to hit later this year, when the mainland stops importing foreign waste.

The cash, will be given in grants to help the businesses buy equipment to turn used plastic into clean pellets, which they will still be able to sell across the border.

Recyclers and green groups welcomed the move by the Recycling Fund, but said the lack of a longer-term government strategy would only put more local recyclers out of business, shrinking the industry and adding to pressure on the city’s overflowing landfills.

Beijing told the World Trade Organisation in July that it would stop importing 24 types of waste including waste plastic, unsorted scrap paper, textiles and slag from steelmaking, as part of a campaign against “foreign garbage” that it said was harming the environment and public health.

In 2015, the mainland imported 46 million tonnes of waste – including roughly half of the world’s imports of scrap paper, plastics and copper – for recycling.

Of the mainland’s total waste plastic imports in the first half of 2016, about a quarter came from Hong Kong. Most of Hong Kong’s waste exports are imported in the first place to sell on.

Jimmy Kwok Chun-wah, who chairs the fund, said the cash grants would be “the fastest measure to help prepare for the [new policy]”.

“If traders can’t export, it will increase the burden on our landfills,” he said.

The government set up the fund in late 2015 with an endowment of HK$1 billion to upgrade the industry’s capacities and capabilities.

The new funding scheme aims to help local recyclers shoulder the costs of having to process waste plastic into clean pellets that can still be imported as secondary raw material under new the mainland’s new rules.

It will help them to buy plastics sorters, label and cap removers, washers, dryers and pelletisers. Each application will be limited to HK$1 million.

Jacky Lau Yiu-shing, director of the Recycle Materials and Re-production Business General Association, said the money would help large and medium-sized recyclers rather than small ones that handle much of the initial work such as collecting and crushing.

Tenants dumped 10 per cent less and recycled 33 per cent more in Hong Kong pay-for-your-waste experiment

“It may be the wrong medicine,” he said. “The government should help more of the frontline street-level recyclers with collection. Right now, no one is collecting waste plastics any more because it’s no longer cost-effective or profitable. How will downstream recyclers get enough supply?”

The price of both waste plastics and paper have fallen drastically recently.

Edwin Lau Che-fung of The Green Earth, an environmental charity, said the government needed to discuss with the mainland how “tight the gate was expected to shut”.

“Recyclers could export to other countries such as [those in] Southeast Asia, but the costs will be high,” he said. “I expect many recyclers to shut down. If no one helps sort waste, more of it will just end up in the landfill.”

Edwin Lau also doubted applications to the fund would help in the short term as the new policies will go into effect before applications are approved and the machines arrive.

In 2015, recycling rates for municipal waste dropped 23 per cent from 2005, driven by a sharp decline in plastic recycling. About 800,000 tonnes of plastic was thrown into Hong Kong landfills in 2015, up 8.9 per cent from the year before.