Are we sinking under the garbage?
Hong Kong’s three major landfills will be at full capacity by 2019, so the government is now toying with the idea of charging you for your waste. Shirley Zhao reports. Photography by Michal Garcia
Luk Kwong-wah takes out two full garbage bags he and his family produced yesterday, one from the kitchen, the other from the living room. The kitchen bag contained egg shells, vegetable roots, plastic packages, cardboard boxes and soup cans. The other contains a loaf of bread, banana peels, sunflower seed shells, chicken bones, plastic and paper, and an empty jam jar. Together, the bags weigh three kilogrammes.
“The weight scares me a little,” says Luk, 34, who works in the finance industry. “We’ve never weighed our garbage before, and we don’t usually produce this much. We usually produce, I’d say, less than two kilogrammes a day.”
According to statistics from the Environmental Protection Department (EPD), in 2010 the daily amount of municipal solid waste – domestic, commercial and industrial waste – was about 19,000 tons, or about 2.7 kilograms per head, about five percent more per capita than the residents of Beijing. At the current rate, it’s estimated that Hong Kong’s three major landfills will reach their maximum capacity before 2019.
The SAR government has isolated three options to tackle the city’s deteriorating waste problem: expanding the landfill in Tseung Kwan O, which was vetoed by the Legislative Council; building an incinerator on Shek Kwu Chau, which passed an environmental impact assessment but incited bitter protest among residents living nearby, and which still faces a judicial review; and the latest idea – waste charging, which is now under public consultation until April 10.
The EPD has also proposed four ‘charging systems’ – by quantity (volume, weight and such like), by ‘indirect indicators’ (such as water consumption), by charging every citizen in the same neighbourhood the same, and by charging companies by the weight of the waste they accumulate.
The government and several environmental groups view waste charging the most effective way to ‘significantly reduce’ the enormous amount of waste generated every day in Hong Kong.
“Waste charging is the only way to incentivise people to produce less waste,” says Michelle Au Wing-tsz, environmental affairs manager of Friends of the Earth.
Au cites the waste charging methods used in Taiwan’s capital, Taipei, as a clear model for Hong Kong. Taipei citizens hand over their waste in special, relatively expensive plastic bags ($1.6 for a 14-litre bag) to the municipal waste collection fleet at designated times and venues. In multi-storey buildings, waste generated by households in the same building are bundled together and placed into large special bags for collection. Consequently, domestic waste in Taipei has dropped over 60 percent in 10 years, according to the EPD.
But many Hongkongers are either bemused or befuddled by the EPD proposals.
“My property management company already includes garbage collection fees in the property management fee. Why should I pay more for my waste?” asks Chen Tsz-wing, 52, who lives in a North Point housing estate and pays $395 per month for management. Fung Dung-mui, a 48-year-old cleaner, doubts if the charging system will readily reduce domestic waste. “People will find other ways to deal with their garbage,” says Fung. “They will litter on streets and it will be people like me who will have to clean it up.”
Au suggests an accompanying system where those who report non-compliance can receive a monetary award from the fines passed down on reported cases. “Waste charging is also an important way to encourage people to participate in recycling,” she adds, “because they need to recycle to reduce the amount of garbage they dispose.”
According to EPD statistics, in 2010 some 52 percent of municipal solid waste was recycled, while the rest went into the landfills. “The percentage is not bad,” says Au, “but most recycling was achieved by frontline cleaners and scavengers. Household waste recycling is still very immature in Hong Kong, and the total amount of waste produced every day is alarming.”
Holly Wong Hoi-yan, a 22-year-old student, has been recycling paper, plastic bottles and aluminium cans with her parents for over a year. They place their labelled recycling bins outside their housing block in Sai Wan Ho, and sell the paper they collect (mostly free newspapers) to a small recycling shop nearby every two or three weeks, receiving around $20 each time. “Not many people are doing garbage recycling, because they have no incentive to,” says Wong. “I support waste charging. It’s just like charging for plastic bags. Now nobody wants plastic bags when they go shopping.”
However, Tang Hoi-wah, who lives with his wife and two children in a 60-year-old residential buildingwhich has no elevator or property management, does not think he could do a better job in waste recycling even if he was charged for waste. “We really want to do garbage recycling,” he tells Time Out, “but we can’t find any recycling bins or recycling shops in the neighbourhood.”
Research conducted by environmental group Greeners Action in 2010 shows that the ratio of ordinary garbage bins to recycling bins in the city was 12 to one. “Although we support the waste charging plan, we hope the government can do more to back up [the plan], like increasing the number of recycling bins, and including food waste and glass into the government sponsored domestic waste recycling programme,” says Yip Chui-man, senior project officer of Greeners Action.
The 2010 EPD statistics also suggest that some 3,237 tons of food waste is dumped into the city’s three landfills every day, amounting to approximately 40 percent of the daily municipal solid waste disposed. Currently, the Programme on Source Separation of Domestic Waste, which launched in 2005, provides waste separation facilities to collect plastic, metal, cardboard, paper, used clothes and electrical and electronic equipment.
Commercial and industrial sectors produced over 800 tons of food waste each day in 2010. Simon Wong Ka-wo, chairman of the Hong Kong Food Council, says few restaurants are recycling food waste because there are even fewer food waste recycling companies in Hong Kong, and the EPD’s pilot composting plant in Kowloon Bay can only deal with two tons of food waste per day.
“It’s a good thing to let people pay for what they waste,” says Wong, “but it’s the customers, not the restaurants, who produce food waste. It’s not fair to charge the restaurants while the government itself won’t do anything to help recycle food waste.”
He is also concerned the government would not use the money from waste charging to help develop recycling throughout the SAR, such as introducing new technologies to convert food waste into energy to encourage more recycling businesses. “The government should first let people know what they will do with their money,” he adds.
Lau Yiu-shing, vice-chairman of Hong Kong Recycle Materials and Re-production Business General Association, sees food waste, glass and furniture as the ‘major problem’ of the city. “They are recyclable and they weigh the most,” says Lau. “The EPD hasn’t provided any facilities to collect these products, and charging citizens will offer no help with reducing daily waste, yet citizens have to pay a lot for the heavy stuff.” He also cites Taipei, where the local government provides recycling trucks to collect and deliver food waste for processing. Asks Lau: “If you want to follow Taipei’s special garbage bags policy, why don’t they follow its food waste recycling policy too?”