Garbage levy: the right way for citizens

Updated: 2013-10-03 07:30

By Raymond So (HK Edition)

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On Sept 25, 2013, the Council for Sustainable Development launched a public consultation over imposing a garbage levy. The title of the consultation was "Waste Reduction by Waste Charging - How to Implement?", which already told stakeholders that the garbage levy was going to be launched, but the critical issue on how to implement the details wasn't.

Hong Kong is now facing a garbage-handling crisis. The existing three landfills will soon reach capacity. The general public is strongly against extending the facilities due to fears over health and environmental concerns. Whether the government can get lawmaker approval for extending the landfills is still a big question. Yet, the garbage problem has to be solved. The building of a new incinerator seems to be a feasible solution. But it will take several years before the incinerator can be put into use, by which time, the streets of Hong Kong may already be knee-deep in dumped garbage.

The garbage levy suggestion is not a new one. Many places have adopted similar measures to control the garbage problem. The notable experience is Taipei, often cited by commentators. People in Taipei share many of the thoughts, living standards and cultural values as Hong Kong people. However, it is not easy to directly transplant the Taipei experience to Hong Kong. When Taipei launched the garbage levy scheme, the general support of the Taipei government was high, and this was crucial to the success of its implementation. Under the current political climate, the levy scheme may not have an easy passage in Hong Kong.

Garbage levy: the right way for citizens

The government faces a difficult situation. Frankly speaking, the levy scheme is a good idea. But under the current system, people have no economic incentive to reduce garbage. By paying a flat management fee, workers will come and collect the garbage. To the general public, no matter how much garbage one produces, the cost will be the same. It is not easy to make people reduce garbage production, as the only drive is through moral reasoning and environmental concern. Without economic incentives, the abstract concept of moral reasoning will not appeal to the general public. People will just ignore the garbage problem.

Once a levy is imposed, people will realize there is a cost associated with garbage handling, thus raising their awareness of waste reduction. The levy amount may be a concern to many people, but as yet, it hasn't been determined. There is still scope for discussion. Conventional thinking dictates that poor people do not produce as much garbage as the rich. If the levy is based on the amount of garbage, and with reasonable entitlement and reduction for people, I do not envisage a big problem for the general public.

If we classify garbage into things that can be recycled and those that really need to go into landfill, the garbage amount will be substantially reduced. I started a classification of garbage some time ago. My own personal experience tells me that I usually only need to dump a bag of garbage once every two weeks, or at most, once a week. The rest are recyclable items such as metals, plastics, papers and glass bottles. For sure there's an element of inconvenience, but at an acceptable level. After all, this is the minimum duty of a responsible citizen.

What discomforts me is that many people use the levy scheme as a means to attack the government. It is unfair to attack the government over a perfectly fair policy on arguments that are ungrounded. The debate on this issue needs to go back to a more rational platform, not hearsay and wasted words.

The author is dean of the School of Business at Hang Seng Management College

(HK Edition 10/03/2013 page5)