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January 31st, 2012:

How Much Has the Hong Kong Government Spent on Improving Air Quality?

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In Hong Kong, a Wasted Chance to Recycle Glass


In Hong Kong, a Wasted Chance to Recycle Glass

Published: January 29, 2012

HONG KONG — April Lai is a woman with a mission. Every Thursday and Saturday, she spends 2.5 hours at a public trash collection point in the Wan Chai district of Hong Kong, home to some of the city’s most colorful nightlife, and scores of bars, clubs and restaurants.

Bettina Wassener/The International Herald Tribune

Demolition waste and glass are turned into bricks at Tiostone Environmental in Hong Kong.

Her goal: to collect glass. Wine bottles, beer bottles, jam jars, soy sauce bottles — she takes them all.

Most of the glass is brought in from a few dozen bars in Wan Chai and in Soho, another bar-studded neighborhood in this Asian financial hub. And sometimes Hong Kong residents come to her little spot among the skyscrapers to bring their offerings. When they do, Ms. Lai, a 50-something bundle of energy, beams. “When people show their support, it is so encouraging,” she said.

Each haul from the bars brings in between two and three tons of glass on average — not bad, given that the resources of Green Glass Green , the tiny nongovernmental organization managed by Ms. Lai, extend to just a few part-time drivers and volunteers.

The destination for all this glass is Tiostone Environmental , whose small factory on the outskirts of Hong Kong makes paving stones from trash.

Founded by three young entrepreneurs in 2005, Tiostone turned about 100,000 tons of waste from the construction industry and 4,000 tons of waste glass last year into paving stones for Hong Kong sidewalks.

In addition to Green Glass Green, several large corporations, a small number of housing developments, hospitals and the Hong Kong Airport Authority also contribute waste glass, said Dixon Chan, who spent several years on a Hong Kong Polytechnic University research project on the uses of construction waste and glass before setting up Tiostone.

In nearby Macao, the government, which last year started a glass-collection initiative, also has begun to ship glass to Tiostone.

It is a symbiotic relationship: Tiostone needs glass as an ingredient for its “eco-bricks.” And the company’s demand for used glass gives a raison d’être to the nascent glass collection efforts.

But it is a recent pairing, and it remains hampered by widespread public indifference and bureaucratic hurdles — illustrating how in many Asian countries, waste management is struggling to keep pace with the rapid rise in consumption, and the resulting garbage, that has accompanied economic growth. Recycling has been a feature of everyday life in Europe for decades, but in many developing economies — or even in developed economies like Hong Kong’s — it has yet to gain real momentum.

To be fair, Hong Kong has improved its overall recycling rate for things like paper, plastics and metals to about 50 percent in 2010 from 40 percent in 2004. But the recycling rate for glass is a paltry 3 percent, reflecting the fact that most businesses, households and politicians do not see glass as a potential resource.

By contrast, Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland recycle about 90 percent of their glass. The E.U. average was 67 percent in 2009, for a total of 11 million tons, or 25 billion glass bottles and jars collected that year, according tostatistics compiled by FEVE , a glass container industry association in Europe. In the United States, about one-third of all glass containers are recycled.

To some extent, Hong Kong’s poor performance on glass recycling can be explained by the sheer cost of collecting the stuff — glass is heavy and expensive to transport. Ready access to raw materials from mainland China means it can be less expensive to make new glass than to convert old glass into new containers.

However, it also highlights a wider phenomenon: Even though environmental issues are advancing up political and public agendas across Asia, they are generally still not at the top of the list. Policy action is often reactive and patchy rather than visionary and decisive, and not backed by the sort of financing, business incentives and sustained public education campaigns that could make a real difference.

When environmental issues do make it onto the public radar, they generally relate to health concerns like air and water pollution, rather than efforts to reduce waste and preserve resources.

There are important exceptions: Japan, South Korea and Taiwan boast sophisticated recycling programs for diverse types of waste.

But Hong Kong, like many other Asian economies, has struggled to get a handle on its trash. Policy makers in the city have known for years that it will soon run out of landfill space.

Despite this, Hong Kong residents keep generating more garbage every year. The city’s seven million inhabitants produced 5.7 million tons of trash in 2004,according to government statistics . By 2010, the amount had swelled to 6.93 million tons.

On a per-capita basis, this means Hong Kong is far more wasteful than other developed societies.

The fact that Green Glass Green, which began its collections 18 months ago, receives some government financing shows that the Hong Kong Environmental Protection Department is starting to take glass recycling seriously, Ms. Lai said.

At the same time, however, glass collection efforts in the city remain on a small scale. Green Glass Green, for example, is able to stage only two collection rounds a week. Ms. Lai is struggling to obtain permission to place collection bins (the sort that are ubiquitous in Europe) in public locations that would allow people to drop off glass whenever they want to.

Many of the bars around Hong Kong remain indifferent to the concept of setting aside bottles for separate collection, she said, and a program backed by the government and the Hong Kong hotel association to collect glass from hotels, started in 2008, has had only lackluster uptake.

Tiostone, meanwhile, got the go-ahead to manufacture its bricks in 2010, when government specifications allowing recycled material to be used in paving stones took effect.

“But we could use a lot more glass — it’s one of the main things that’s holding us back,” Mr. Chan said. Moreover, the recycled-materials mix is restricted to floor paving stones and cannot be used for walls or slope reinforcements.

“Things are moving, but they are moving very, very slowly,” Mr. Chan said.

Ms. Lai, he said, is doing a great job. “But we need 1,000 Aprils,” he said, referring to her.

Clean-air group cries foul over pollution cash

Hong Kong Standard

Less than 45percent of the HK$5.5 billion budget earmarked to combat air pollution over the past 10 years has been spent.

Kenneth Foo

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Less than 45percent of the HK$5.5 billion budget earmarked to combat air pollution over the past 10 years has been spent.

That’s the claim of the Clean Air Network following its study of government spending on anti-pollution measures from 1999 to 2010. The group said there is a gross discrepancy between the allocated budget and the amount spent.

It blames the Environmental Protection Department for its ineffective allocation of funds and enacting severely flawed policies.

“Our analysis shows that there is an obvious under-utilization of resources and great inefficiency in the methods used by the government to tackle our growing air-pollution problem,” group campaign manager Erica Chan Fong- ying said.

“This clearly shows that air quality has never been one of the government’s top priorities.”

Chan said an example of a plan that lacks foresight is the 2007 subsidy scheme to encourage early replacement of pre-Euro and Euro I commercial diesel vehicles.

Of all existing schemes, this had the least funds used, with only 19percent of the HK$2.5 billion available being taken up.

During that time, only 16,000 out of 59,000 eligible commercial vehicles applied for the one-off subsidy.

The group said the low popularity was down to the subsidy being too small to be an effective incentive.

Emergency measures are needed

South China Morning Post

31 Jan 2012

I refer to Guy Shirra’s letter (“Treat bad air problems as a crisis”, January 25).

Last year in a letter to these columns, I said Hong Kong does not have an air pollution problem, it has an air pollution emergency. Thus, the government’s crisis managers should be treating the situation as an emergency.

In Lai See (“Hong Kong’s Air Pollution Index is shamefully misleading”, January 27), Howard Winn quotes Professor Anthony Hedley as writing: “Hong Kong’s pollution is a significant cause of premature death from cardiopulmonary disorders.

“Present levels of pollution cause injury to the immature developing lungs of children and adolescents. This damage will lead to lifelong health problems in many and a reduction in life expectancy.”

Lai See also mentions that around 3,200 deaths a year in Hong Kong can be directly attributed to the air quality emergency whilst World Health Organisation figures for bird flu are 341 deaths worldwide since 2003 and a worldwide total of 913 deaths from severe acute respiratory syndrome.

We have a typhoon warning system that is presumably based on some form of risk management principles. The conclusion of this process seems to be that when the typhoon signal No 3 is hoisted, the weather has become sufficiently dangerous for workers to prepare to return home.When the No 8 signal goes up, workers remain at home.

Given that very few people are killed or injured by typhoons in comparison to the numbers killed and injured by our poisonous air, the Air Pollution Index must follow a similar warning system to that used for typhoons. Workers should remain at home when roadside air pollution is deemed to be unsafe.

Perhaps days and days of empty offices and lost production might ram home the point that there is an emergency and emergency measures are needed to deal with it.

Mark Ranson, Sai Kung

Pledge to act is hot air without a target

South China Morning Post

Audrey Eu criticises the government’s delay to set limits for pollution control

Jan 31, 2012

The long-awaited update of Hong Kong’s air quality objectives was finally announced by Secretary for the Environment Edward Yau Tang-wah this month, but it was only a post-dated cheque, to take effect in 2014, and still a far cry from the air quality guidelines set by the World Health Organisation.

Yau also warned that this will mean increases in bus fares and electricity bills of between 15 and 20 per cent. But is that so?

The current objectives were set in 1987, almost a quarter of a century ago. After the WHO updated its guidelines in 2006, the government commissioned a study and carried out a public consultation. All were in favour of early implementation of updated objectives, plus a regular review. This process was completed in 2009. But no announcement was forthcoming.

When pressed, Yau said the government was taking steps to implement 19 measures that would improve air quality. This is subterfuge. Can you imagine a doctor telling a patient with hypertension to try taking 19 measures – such as quit smoking and drinking – to reduce his blood pressure but not tell him that the systolic pressure for healthy individuals should not go above 120? Improving air quality is one thing, being honest about the healthy standard is another.

While Yau was quick to warn of an increased costs for cleaner air, he did not talk about the costs of pollution. The University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health publishes a real-time index that clocks the medical costs and sick days that are attributed to the effects of pollution. Every year, 3,200 people die prematurely due to pollution. The poor environment also dampens incentive for overseas investment. These costs are ignored by the government and not accounted for.

The main culprit is roadside pollution, especially emissions from the thousands of old buses plying our streets that do not meet current European emissions standards. According to the government’s agreement with the bus companies, each bus can run for 18 years and we have to wait until 2020 before all of them exhaust their agreed life span.

As pedestrians, we cover our noses when crossing the street, and we cannot afford to wait any longer. Investments in cleaner air benefit everyone, and there is no reason bus passengers should shoulder the costs alone. Our government can easily afford to reimburse the bus companies for their losses if they retire these old buses early and replace them with cleaner ones.

Power companies have also raised their charges. But, in this case, we know that the culprit is the schemes of control signed with the government that guarantees the power companies a 9.99per cent profit based on fixed assets. Environmental concern was not the main reason for the unreasonable tariff increases proposed.

Yau claims the new air quality objectives can’t take effect until 2014 because it takes time to go through the legislative process.In fact, under section 7 of the Air Pollution Control Ordinance, the secretary just has to gazette the new objectives without going through a legislative process.

At the moment, the new Legislative Council complex has an indoor air quality problem and this is measured daily and compared to the standard set by a Finnish organisation. Likewise, we should not need legislation to set the standard for healthy air in Hong Kong. It is the duty of the secretary under the ordinance first to set the standard by gazette, and then to implement measures to meet that standard gradually.

But this government does the reverse. Instead of announcing the right standards for all sectors to meet, it waits until all sectors are willing to meet those standards. It will wait for the bus companies to be able to afford cleaner buses, and for the Airport Authority to “endeavour” to meet the new benchmarks in its environment impact assessment for the third runway, and for the power companies to have more natural gas supply from the mainland, before informing us how poor our air quality actually is.

Audrey Eu Yuet-mee is a legislator and founding leader of the Civic Party