The Hong Kong government’s commitment to supporting the recycling industry, including setting up a HK$150-million food-waste treatment facility to be completed in 2016, is crystal clear.
Industry veterans, on their part, are skeptical, warning that the bid may still fall short of mitigating a looming garbage disposal crisis.
Perhaps, what’s lacking is public awareness and a shared sense of responsibility to avoid, minimize and recycle municipal solid waste (MSW), which currently piles up at 9,000 metric tonnes a day (based on 2011 statistics), about one-third of which is household food refuse.
Most of the garbage lands at the city’s three existing strategic landfills, which have not only been a source of bitter discontent among local residents, but also drawn the wrath of neighboring Shenzhen which claims that the odor coming from the two dumps located near the border is too much to bear.
A levy on domestic waste was introduced in 2008, but not much headway has been made since. And, last month, the government launched a pilot “pay-as-you-throw” project with seven residential estates volunteering to participate. Consumers may be charged for every garbage bag purchased, or pay according to the volume or weight of the garbage they produce. Meeting ignored
But, is it paying off? To many residents involved, the answer is ‘No.”
“In the end, who cares?” complained Luk Sau-ching, a resident of one of the seven estates taking part in the project. For six months, each household will receive a bill monthly for their garbage disposal. But it’s only an experiment and nobody really needs to pay a cent.
Luk claimed that no one would show up at meetings called by residents of her neighborhood to explain how the campaign works. The government only put out a notice to inform the residents that the project is in place.
It is such stupor of insufficient consultation and engagement with the public that critics have found fit to rule that the government’s overall performance to steer the public towards garbage reduction and recycling is not going to work.
Associate Professor Chu Lee-man of the School of Life Sciences at the Chinese University of Hong Kong said the government has been adopting a much “too soft” approach for years, thus failing to get people and industries on board with a waste levy scheme and source separation of waste.
Apart from campaigns and encouragement, more vigorous plans are painfully slow in trying to change people’s waste disposal habits, Chu argued. The government started a producer-responsible scheme in 2008 to cultivate a “reduce, re-use, recycle” culture, but this has been largely ignored by industries and is virtually unknown to consumers.
With the government’s stalled plans to expand the city’s three landfills to avert a potential saturation crisis in a few years’ time, and which have sparked intense resentment and opposition from residents living near the three dumps, the government ought to be seen to demonstrate it has tried its best to pursue other alternatives.
A funding up to HK$1 billion is open for application by recycling businesses. A further investment of HK$1.5 billion for an organic waste recycling facility at Siu Ho Wan, North Lantau, is expected to process 200 tonnes of food waste per day, generating electricity and producing 20 tonnes of composts.
By 2024, five more similar facilities will be built around Hong Kong, with a total capacity to process 1,500 tonnes of food waste daily. But, there’s still a lot of public education work to do to make it all work. Henry Ngai, who has been running an organic waste recycling center for seven years, criticized the government for not paying enough attention to gaining public support.
“The government seems to assume there won’t be a problem to get rid of 200 tonnes of food waste a day” at the planned Siu Ho Wan facility, Ngai said. But what the industry needs is good quality food waste. Those mixed with plastic bags, disposable tableware and everything else are practically useless because it’s difficult to pick out unrecyclable items.
Very few households and businesses in Hong Kong have the habit of separating food refuse from other waste. Based on Ngai’s experience with his clients, which are mainly hotels, it usually takes at least two training sessions to make hotel employees understand that source separation of food refuse from other waste is important to the recycling industry.
“Since there’s a legitimate way to discard all sorts of garbage free of charge, businesses do not have the incentive to pay extra to hire companies like mine to recycle organic waste,” Ngai reckoned.
Therefore, he would welcome more regulations to be introduced by the authorities, such as licensing qualified organic waste recyclers. Currently, there are some 17 companies in the organic waste treatment business in Hong Kong, but Ngai said most of them only collect and transport waste.
“Their services are much simpler and cheaper than those of a company that really handles organic waste recycling,” Ngai said. He urged the government to draw a line between the two businesses by issuing different licenses so that people can make informed decisions when they consider hiring a garbage transport company or an organic waste recycling firm. Food waste recycling
Ngai charges HK$10,000 a month to serve a hotel, and his clientele has been extended to schools, the Hong Kong Jockey Club and residential buildings. He distributes buckets to his clients and, at the end of each day, more than 100 buckets will be transported back to the facility at Sheung Shui to make pig feed.
Heng Fa Chuen — a residential complex on eastern Hong Kong Island — began working with Ngai this year. Each household has to pay HK$4.50 a month for Ngai’s company to collect and recycle food waste.
Chao Sing-kie of the Heng Fa Chuen’s Owners Corporation said the estate’s residents have also joined in 16 other projects to promote source separation of domestic waste, but none of the initiatives has been formally established as a government policy.
For more than a decade, all the government did is to campaign and launch pilot projects. “Just talking isn’t enough,” Chao told homeowners in April, saying it was time to take action and that “learning by doing” will be helpful in identifying a plan that’s workable.
Fong Kwok-shan, a Sai Kung district councilor, said she believes a domestic waste levy, charging HK$20 to HK$30 monthly, can be a monetary incentive to urge people to cut down on garbage disposal. But still absent are the supporting services to educate the public about how to dispose of waste properly.
“Will there be different collection points for food waste, glass bottles, car tires and lamp tubes? The answer is no,” Fong said. The government had briefly considered banning fully recyclable items from landfills but, in the end, gave up the idea.
Instead of spending billions of dollars on landfill expansion, maintenance and after-use care that would last 30 years after they are closed, Fong said, the government could rather use taxpayers’ money to persuade and compel the public to do source separation and recycling the best way they can.
Fong, a staunch opponent of the proposal to extend the life of the Tseung Kwan O landfill, said all her petitions and protests against the plan may fall on deaf ears and may not succeed, but “at least, most people will become aware” that their waste disposal habits could amount to social injustice to neighborhoods that have to put up with unpleasant odor and worsening air pollution that threaten public health. Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Hong Kong Organic Waste Recycling Centre at Sheung Shui uses food-waste compost to grow vegetables in soil-free greenhouses, and supplies the products to local consumers.