Coherent approach to waste issue

Updated: 2013-08-09 07:18

By Li Kui-wai(HK Edition)

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Coherent approach to waste issue

There has been much public debate over garbage collection and management, particularly on where to build additional garbage dumping grounds. Much of the debate relates to unrealistic claims. Garbage is a "common bad" that no one wants. Yet, garbage is produced massively on a daily basis. Very often, while we enjoy the convenience of modern life, the price or outcome is the increase in garbage. Restaurants want to save costs, so wooden chopsticks are used and immediately disposed of. Fast-food outlets use large amounts of foam boxes, plastic knives and forks, paper bags and other materials, which become garbage after a single usage. Yet, it is the working population who patronize fast-food outlets mostly. How can convenience be traded-off with garbage reduction and environmental protection?

While it is easier to criticize than to construct, one has to take a more pragmatic attitude and not take a blind approach to eliminate garbage disposal. One rather scientific way to examine the disposal issue is from the input end by looking at the quantity of materials used in making the bottles, tins and cans, plastic bags, foam boxes and paper materials. From the input end of the usage, the question is how we can reduce its volume in the short term. In the long term, one solution relates to the behavior of consumption, while another solution relates to technological improvement in material production so that manufacturers can have a more environment-friendly choice.

The next set of problems concerns the actual usage of disposable materials. The use of disposable materials has become essential in many industries. Disposal from hospitals and schools cannot be avoided. Disposal from residences and homes can be minimized by public education and personal behavior, but there would be a minimum threshold of total garbage disposal in Hong Kong. A more flexible approach could probably be adopted in the commercial category of material usage.

However, this is easier said than done. More often, it is out of convenience rather than need that plastic containers and foam boxes are used and subsequently thrown away. A large number of newspapers are given free daily, and also discarded soon after. But then, such commercial behavior can be found all over the world. It is a matter of supply and demand, supply of foam boxes and plastic containers will drop if people use less; the commercial sector acts as a facilitator in the usage.

One can look at all the available statistics on the input and output ends of the disposal business. Being a consumption-driven economy, many of the disposal materials are imported through different consumable items. Every person engages materials disposals through a number of channels. It would not be possible to have a single solution.

One approach would be to set targets so that the quantity of disposal will be capped at a maximum level, while promotion will continuously be made to reduce garbage. Another solution is the more extensive use of the renewal business. How to turn a "common bad" into a "common good"? Garbage is a "common bad" because it has no commercial value. Promotion of the renewal business effectively changes the "bad" into a "good" as it then adds commercial value to the collection of renewable materials and items.

One is not suggesting that therefore the government will have to do that much more in addition. It would be appropriate to encourage but not massively intervene in the renewal business. Currently, there are numerous collection containers and stations that are supposed to collect cans and tins, bottles and newspapers. In a way, the government has allocated many resources in the collection process already. The relevant question is how efficient and effective the collection of renewable materials has been?

The long-term option rests in technology promotion that could either make the collection process more efficient and less costly, or replace the use of disposable materials with other more environmentally-friendly materials.

In the end, we have to decide how and where to dump our garbage. The long-term advantage of garbage disposal would be the creation of more land for public development. Remote areas and lone islands will be the probable sites, including the use of designated and protected areas of the sea adjacent to some lone islands. While no one wants a "bad" in our neighborhood, one can be more innovative and creative in garbage disposal by utilizing our lone islands in the form of land reclamation activity. Of course, to make these ideas workable, feasibility studies have to be conducted.

Hong Kong people as a whole have to think, deal with, and be responsible for the disposal problem as we are major contributors to it. Although our living areas, regions or districts and environment are different, the price of property reflects the various features and characteristics of our residential areas. What is lacking is a consensus such that the government can proceed to develop the area, while the businesses can take advantage of the disposal business. The consensus should involve the use of designated areas for the disposal, the social cost and benefits of the disposal issue, the control of the quantity of garbage and the various business opportunities that arise from the renewal business. Let's not just complain and argue over who should be held responsible for the garbage, when we are all contributors. Rather, we should have a more coherent approach so that a series of solutions can be developed and executed.

The author is associate professor in the Department of Economics and Finance at City University of Hong Kong.

(HK Edition 08/09/2013 page1)