Decentralize waste disposal

Updated: 2013-08-06 07:06

By Ho Lok-sang (HK Edition)

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Decentralize waste disposal

NIMBY stands for "Not in My Backyard", and refers to the undesirable landfill facilities that every district council would reject - even though the functions that NIMBY performs serve the real needs of every district. It is human nature to prefer that undesirable facilities be located elsewhere. It is human nature to ask: why should I make the sacrifice that spares other districts? As most district council members are directly elected, being responsible to their constituents means defending the interests of these constituents. The wider interest of Hong Kong then will likely be ignored, and no one can blame them. NIMBY is therefore always tough to tackle. No wonder the problem keeps being put off. But eventually the time will come when the problem cannot be put off any more. Hong Kong is now facing the problem of garbage disposal with great urgency, as the available landfills are reaching their capacity fast.

Scientifically, the technically most appropriate, and physically much more sustainable way out is to build advanced incinerators that subject the collected garbage to very high temperatures that screen-out the toxic substances before emission. The ashes from the incineration will then be dumped into a landfill. Such ashes will certainly be much smaller in volume than the original garbage. However, no district councillor who wants to be re-elected will say yes to building an incinerator within the district.

This is an impasse caused by human nature and the political system, as long as the garbage problem is tackled centrally. For this reason, a way out is to decentralize the decision-making process to the 18 districts. The SAR government can ask each district to tackle its own garbage problem. It will be up to each district council to find a solution. It can choose to build an incinerator within the bounds of the district and take care of its own garbage. It can build a high efficiency and high-capacity incinerator which can incinerate garbage from another district at a price. Alternatively, it can pay another district which has excess handling capacity to incinerate its garbage. Of course, if incineration is not preferred, and the district is big enough and has land available to serve as landfill, it can also opt to use landfills instead of incinerators.

Given that each district is responsible for its own garbage proposal, supposing that it opts to build an incinerator, all district councillors will have an interest in ensuring that the incinerator is efficient and emissions will not be harmful. They can be counted on to set up a credible and accountable process of tendering the engineering job, and to monitor its completion. A district that builds a bigger incinerator that will "sell its excess capacity" to another district will be compensated materially. No district will be taking advantage of another district unfairly. The problem will be solved!

Of course the ashes still need to be put into a landfill. Such landfills will certainly be much less repugnant than landfills for household or industrial waste. Locations for such landfills will be easier to find, and again we can adopt the same approach. Simply let those districts that agree to accommodate an ash-landfill accept payment from other districts that prefer not to house their landfills locally.

The proposed approach will at once relieve the SAR government of the very difficult task. No one can complain it is unfair. People will be adequately compensated. No one can take advantage of others.

To get the ball rolling, the SAR government will announce that its current landfills will stop accepting garbage from districts by a given date. By doing this it will give advance notice to all the districts that they need to take care of their garbage problems.

Of course the SAR government will also have to do other things at the same time. In particular, it will have to make an earnest effort at reducing the generation of household and industrial waste. It will have to support the recycling industry, both through a recycling-friendly policy and by direct subsidies. It is also proposed that each district can collect the solid waste disposal charges from those who generate the solid waste. This way, there is no unjustifiable cross-subsidization between districts. If necessary, and at the request of district councils, the SAR government can collect the charges on their behalf. The collected revenue, net of administrative cost, will then be returned to the districts.

In general, all policy designs must be based on a good understanding of human nature in order to work. Policies that go against human nature are always doomed to fail. In this instance, decentralization is the way out. In a real sense, decentralization "empowers" each district and makes each district and their residents more responsible.

The author is a director of the Center for Public Policy Studies at Lingnan University.

(HK Edition 08/06/2013 page1)