The burning question to landfill capacity lies with incineration
Updated: 2013-08-01 06:37
By Raymond So(HK Edition)
A garbage crisis is looming in Hong Kong after the government failed to get the Legislative Council's (LegCo) nod on fund allocation for the study of the extension of existing landfills.
When the government withdrew its request for funds to study the extension of Tseung Kwan O landfill from LegCo, many commentators predicted the government would not be able to get LegCo endorsement for similar requests to study the extension of other landfills as well. This prophecy doesn't require a crystal ball. It is clear that landfills are not welcome by nearby residents, and the opposition voice is strong. The defeat somehow indicates that the government has too few allies in LegCo on this matter. Worse still, the garbage problem has become a political issue. With pressure from voters, it is not easy to get endorsements from lawmakers.
The struggle reflects the overriding reality that the traditional way of relying on landfills to dispose of garbage is no longer workable. What the city needs now for tackling the pressing garbage problem is a four-dimensional approach, which should consist of landfills, a garbage levy to reduce waste, incineration plants, and reclamation.
The city used to rely on landfills for garbage disposal in the past mainly because people did not have the mindset or channels to raise objections, and to protect their rights. In the colonial years, LegCo was dominated by pro-government members. The government could easily pass resolutions on the opening of new areas for landfills. There were cases in which the landfills were located in the urban area, such as the Jordan Valley landfill and the Sai Tso Wan landfill, which were located in East Kowloon. People living nearby suffered from poor air quality and other severe pollution problems until the two landfills were closed and have become parks after years of restoration. The clear lesson is, though landfills can be restored to become leisure areas, the process is time-consuming and costly. Having become a landfill, the land cannot be used for residential purposes because of the existence of biogas, which takes many years to diminish before development can be carried out. Very often, the restored land on landfill can only be used to build parks and playgrounds. Hence, while landfill is an essential element in garbage handling, this approach is likely to expire soon because new landfills can hardly be built.
The idea of garbage levy and waste reduction is appealing. According to many environmental concern groups, if the garbage production rate is reduced, there is no need for landfill extensions. The problem is, even with effective waste reduction, garbage will not totally disappear. Sooner or later the existing landfills will all hit capacity unless we can reduce waste by a drastic margin. However, a large reduction in waste calls for a heavy levy on garbage disposal, raising the problem of persuading people to accept the levy. Taiwan's experience shows that incinerators are still necessary even though they have significantly reduced garbage with a levy.
Incineration plants are clearly not welcome by many people for fear of poisonous gas and materials. Nevertheless, when we look at the garbage problem, we have no way out but to incinerate. Modern technologies have greatly reduced the production of poisonous materials, and shrink garbage to around one percent of the original volume, minimizing or eliminating the need to extend existing landfills. Incineration plants can help resolve major disputes surrounding the garbage problem; no wonder the government is pushing hard for this choice.
Residuals produced by incineration can be used for reclamation, which the government has planned to accomplish outside Victoria Harbor to further build up its land bank. Singapore has successfully reclaimed land with incineration residuals.
This is how the four-dimensional approach in garbage-handling works. First we install a garbage levy so as to reduce garbage growth. Then we reduce the volume of garbage through incineration, and dump the residuals on reclamation site or in landfills. As garbage is greatly reduced and the residuals are not as undesirable as normal garbage, the landfill problem can be alleviated as well.
The author is dean of the School of Business at Hang Seng Management College.
(HK Edition 08/01/2013 page9)