Talking Rubbish: Hong Kong’s waste problem explained

Asia’s World City is faced with a problem of epic proportions. Producing more than 9,000 tonnes of waste per day, to put it simply: our trash disposal systems are rubbish.

At the rate waste is being disposed of in Hong Kong, our landfills will be full within the next five years. Is the only solution really to bury and burn?

South East New Territories Landfill

Only 48 percent of our waste is recycled. While some may consider that a statistic to be proud of, it still means that the majority is left to landfill.

In 2013, a government blueprint detailed aims to reduce Hong Kong’s waste disposal to 1 kilogramme per person per day by 2017. The way to achieve this, according to Secretary for the Environment K. S. Wong, is by adopting a holistic waste management strategy.

Bury or burn?

One proposed solution to Hong Kong’s burgeoning waste problem is the construction of an incinerator on Shek Kwu Chau, a small island south of Lantau. Opponents of the scheme, however, suggest it is one “motivated by politics rather than by commonsense”.

Site of proposed incinerator (Living Islands Movement)

The Living Islands Movement, a community from the outlying islands dedicated to the pursuit of sustainable development initiatives for Hong Kong, has proposed four alternative sites based upon the availability of land, zoning compatibility and proximity to the sea. The Town Planning Board has so far rejected all of them.

The incinerator will cost an estimated HKD18billion. Using “moving grate technology”, it will see the ash compounded and shipped to existent landfills, which will still need to be expanded in due course. 

A rubbish bin at Chai Wan Cape Collinson

An alternative to moving grate technology is plasma gasification, a comparatively new method that converts organic matter into synthetic gas, electricity, and slag (solid waste) and removes toxic waste from trash.

Seems too good to be true, right? However, plasma gasification technology is expensive and has never been used on a large scale as would be needed in Hong Kong. Having said that, a pilot program could easily be introduced at landfill sites, something that certain companies – including Green Island Cement, which converts waste into fuel for its cement plant – have offered to trial.

Would you still like to live beside the seaside?

The public has been assured that the health of urban populations would not be at risk from an incinerator. However, Hong Kong’s winds blow south in the summer, potentially carrying harmful emissions to nearby urban populations.

A banner from the campaign against the incinerator (Photo: Living Islands Movement) 

Other considerations include the noise and pollution created from piling and drilling, and the effects these could have on finless porpoises indigenous to the area. These little critters can’t catch a break, even after the disastrous affects Disneyland had on the pink dolphin population.

All of these issues speak of a larger problem – that there isn’t a checking process in place. The Advisory Council for the Environment rarely reject any government proposals as they are in fact government appointees themselves. Anybody else drawing any parallels with Hong Kong’s more political concerns?

The Living Islands Movement agrees that we are faced with a problem that goes beyond the issues of consumer culture and denial of responsibility.

Rubbish truck at Sheung Wan refuse centre

According to the chairman of the organisation, Merrin Pearse, “The system is broken so we need to dispose [of it]. What we should be doing is reusing, recycling, repurposing and then disposing of the leftovers”.

Pearse makes it abundantly clear that he is not against either the disposal or burning of waste. What he does see as problematic, however, is the current model of “dig, make and dispose”.

He also rebukes the argument that Hong Kong doesn’t have the space to build recycling facilities as one that “simply isn’t true”. Not only that, this simple untruth has a simple solution; “just go vertical the way that HK has been doing for decades; build up, not out”.

What now?

Hong Kong is a wealthy city. With a conservative estimate of a budget surplus of HKD12 billion for the financial year 2014 – 2015, the money exists to implement change. However, where this money should be allocated will always remain a contentious point, as environmental concerns will never appear as pressing to the wider public as healthcare and education, for example.

A rally in Admiralty (Photo: Living Islands Movement)

To make matters worse, this money is trapped in a sprawling net of bureaucracy – the Environmental Protection Agency, the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, and the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department all handle waste management but have separate budgets and consequently separate frameworks within which to operate.

In all fairness, the government has taken some steps to initiate change. Cross-departmental consultations have begun to eliminate the challenges posed in the age of bureaucracy.

Perhaps the biggest success has been the EcoPark – an industrial site in Tuen Mun exclusively for waste recycling, where land is offered at low cost.

Whilst transportation costs hinder complete success, this certainly is a step in the right direction. Recycling 30 tonnes a month is hardly laughable. The system already exists and need only be up-scaled.

As with every major transformation, however, a grassroots movement is essential. Community behavioural change, according to Pearse, is one of the fundamental pillars in initiating a long-lasting and sustainable system.

Recycling bins at Admiralty’s Tamar Park

An example of such successes can be found in the glass recycling campaign, which took on a new life when local residents adopted it on Lamma Island two years ago, although elsewhere it remains largely elusive.

Heated debate continues to surround the issue. Reduce, re-use, recycle; or bury, burn, and brush aside. What would you see happen? 

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