De­cen­tral­ize waste dis­posal

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - HK COMMENT - HO LOK- SANG The author is a di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for Pub­lic Pol­icy Stud­ies at Ling­nan Univer­sity.

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 cross­sub­si­diza­tion 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.

Ho Lok-sang

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