Waste levy alone will do little to tackle garbage mountain
Updated: 2017-03-29 07:19
By David Wong(HK Edition)
The Environment Bureau has announced that it will introduce a bill on municipal solid waste (MSW) charges into the Legislative Council later this year. The government has adopted its usual "polluter pays" principle based on equity grounds. This means residents will be charged, mainly by having to buy designated garbage bags. This arrangement will affect the vast majority of residential buildings and street-level shops which now use the free government waste collection service. The designated bags will have nine volumes ranging from 3 liters to 100 liters. The proposed per-liter charge will be set at 11 HK cents per liter. Officials estimate that, if a three-member household used a 15 liter bag for daily disposal of MSW, it would have to pay HK$1.7 per day. A smaller 10-liter bag would cost HK$1.1 instead. The price level reportedly compares well with Taipei and Seoul.
There is indeed a strong need for Hong Kong to reduce MSW. Without any incinerators, all our MSW is dumped at landfills across Hong Kong. These are extremely obnoxious to nearby residents and are rapidly filling up. The government reported that in the past 30 years, MSW in Hong Kong increased more than 80 percent, far outpacing the 34 percent population growth in the same period. As of 2015, each person produced an average 1.39 kilograms of MSW every day, much higher than the level in our neighboring cities. Hopefully the new scheme will cut waste disposal 40 percent by 2022.
This MSW charging scheme is a necessity to protect the environment but is nonetheless disruptive to ordinary residents and businesses in Hong Kong. The government is aware of the difficulties and will provide a preparatory period of 12 to 18 months so the public and stakeholders can prepare for the scheme's implementation, which will not happen before 2019. A massive public education campaign has to be launched if there is any chance MSW charges will be successfully implemented. Different sectors of the community have to be convinced of the need for MSW charges. They also have to understand the operational details of the scheme before they can be mobilized to carry it out.
Despite the grace period and public education campaign, some operational difficulties will be extremely difficult to overcome.
Firstly, MSW charges seek to reduce waste by encouraging recycling and reducing waste at source. But there is simply not enough local recycling capacity to handle the possibly huge increase in waste paper, plastic, metal cans and glass bottles. The profit margins of such businesses are too low and there is not enough land to accommodate many new and large recycling plants. Contrary to common belief, it is not possible to export our recycled waste to the Chinese mainland as the central government has long forbidden waste imports. Reducing waste at source is easier said than done as ordinary citizens have little or no control over the packaging of consumer goods. Source-reduction mainly depends on businesses disciplining themselves to eliminate excess packaging.
Secondly, overseas experience has shown MSW charges will lead to illegal waste disposal as some residents would avoid the levy by dumping at public waste bins or garbage depots. The government has said it would, at first, drastically reduce the number of public waste bins, which would probably worsen environmental hygiene. It would also require a lot of additional manpower to enforce the law on the streets and within numerous residential buildings. With any luck, the HK$1,500 penalty should be a sufficient deterrent to potential violators.
Last but not least, since most Hong Kong housing units are within multi-story residential buildings, it is almost impossible to track the source of illegal waste disposal. The suggestion of neighborhood monitoring would only lead to a further increase in tensions among families living in crowded spaces. Monitoring measures, such as security cameras at each floor, would be prohibitively expensive. In the end, all households in residential buildings may have to reach a compromise by paying an additional yet uniform levy. Since everyone would have to pay an extra standard fee regardless, there is little financial incentive to reduce MSW.
In short, the goal of an MSW charging scheme is laudable yet the chance of successful implementation hinges on many factors. Much still needs to be done before the MSW produced in Hong Kong could be significantly reduced.
(HK Edition 03/29/2017 page8)