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May 18th, 2015:

Hong Kong’s plan to reduce its waste enters the realm of fantasy

Tom Yam says the government’s plan to reduce our waste through charging – while doing little to encourage recovery and recycling – is based on wishful thinking and won’t be realised

Go to Disneyland instead. You’ll be immersed in Fantasyland either way, but you’ll have more fun with Mickey Mouse than Environment Secretary Wong Kam-sing.

Here’s a tip for delegates coming to Hong Kong for an international conference on solid waste: skip our environment secretary’s keynote address. Go to Disneyland instead. You’ll be immersed in Fantasyland either way, but you’ll have more fun with Mickey Mouse than Wong Kam-sing.

Wong is expected to recite his “Hong Kong Blueprint for Sustainable Use of Resources 2013-2022”. The part on waste management is as fantastical as Space Mountain, but minus the thrills. To reduce Hong Kong’s Waste Mountain, the Environment Bureau’s goal is to cut by 40 per cent the amount of solid waste disposed of per capita, from 1.27kg per day in 2011 to 0.8kg in 2022 (no matter that the figure in fact increased to 1.33kg in 2013). The bureau insists this is achievable through charging us for the solid waste we produce, along with public education, and cites the success of South Korea and Taipei in shrinking their waste mountains.

But the bureau is wishing upon a star. A waste-reduction policy based on reality, rather than wishful thinking, has to follow an inescapable equation: waste disposed is equal to waste generated, minus waste recovered for recycling. Waste charging can reduce the amount of waste generated. But equally essential is increasing the amount of waste recovered and recycled. After introducing waste charging, South Korea reduced the waste it generated by 23 per cent, and increased the waste it recovered from 24 per cent to 60 per cent. Taipei reduced the waste it generated by 62 per cent, and increased the waste it recycled to 60 per cent. The combined effect of generating less garbage and recovering more of it for recycling is necessary in reducing the amount of waste that needs disposing of.

A further reality that the bureau wilfully ignores is that waste recovery and recycling is impossible without a mandatory, systematic programme of waste separation. Recyclable waste, such as paper, metal, glass and plastic, needs to be handled separately from waste that ends up in landfills or the incinerator. Such a programme cannot be enforced without legislation. Taiwan has introduced such laws: a Waste Disposal Act and a Resource Recycling Act, which mandate comprehensive waste separation and recycling.

Similarly, South Korea introduced a Waste Control Act and an Act on Promotion of Saving and Recycling of Waste. It takes political will to push through such a statutory framework.

Key to recovering more waste is a recycling industry that can profitably process such waste into marketable products like recycled paper, glassware, plastic items and building materials. To support its recycling industry, Taiwan has an annual recycling fund of NT$6 billion (HK$1.5 billion ). It has become a leading developer of recycling technology. In South Korea, a government-sponsored Korea Environmental Corporation provides financial assistance to the recycling industry, resulting in a substantial increase in the number of recycling companies in the country.

Hong Kong’s pitiable recycling industry does not have the scale or infrastructure to process recovered waste into marketable products. For starters, 93 per cent of recovered waste is exported for sale, mostly to the mainland. In 2003, the government designated an EcoPark for a high-tech, high-value-added recycling industry. Yet the industry remains stuck at the lowest level of operations: collection, recovery and export of waste paper, metal, plastic, etc, activities with low economic value.

Relying on exporting also exposes the industry to external vagaries. During the global financial crisis in 2008, for instance, the purchase price of waste paper in Hong Kong plummeted from HK$2,000 to HK$700 per tonne. In 2013, when mainland authorities tightened regulations for importing recovered plastics, 100,000 tonnes of plastic waste piled up at collection points.

Without serious and sustained separation of waste to increase the waste recovered, the amount of recyclables is simply insufficient to support the development of a recycling industry. Relying on export, the industry will dwindle as waste exporting options continue to decrease, limiting the amount of recyclable waste that exporters want to recover profitably.

The government has made no serious effort to create an indigenous recycling industry. A one-off HK$1 billion fund proposed to support recycling companies essentially only subsidises local companies to recover more waste for export. HK$1 billion sounds like a lot but it’s measly compared to the HK$19 billion budgeted for building an incinerator, HK$10 billion for expanding landfills, and HK$8 billion for a sludge treatment facility. In 2011-2012, the budget dedicated to education, publicity and advertisement of recycling was only HK$24 million. The allocation of funding reveals the priority: building waste-disposal capacity, not recycling.

Scattered recycling pilot projects are being tried in some housing estates but none have resulted in a territory-wide programme. The tri-colour recycling bins on the streets collect only 700 tonnes of recyclable waste a year, a mere fraction of the waste generated in Hong Kong. Yet the bureau claims it will increase the rate of recovery from 37 per cent of waste generated in 2013 to 55 per cent by 2022.

While the government looks to waste charging in reducing the waste generated, it ignores the other side of the equation: waste separation mandated by legislation and the creation of a viable recycling industry. Yet without these essential components, it aspires to achieve in seven years from now what Taipei took more than a decade to accomplish. There’s a Disney attraction analogous to that aspiration; it’s called The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.

Tom Yam is a Hong Kong-based management consultant. He holds a doctorate in electrical engineering and an MBA from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania

The state of recycling in America

With summer approaching, the resort town of Ocean City, Maryland, will soon see an influx of tourists, their coolers filled with water bottles and soda cans. Vacationers here can also take a break from recycling and toss all their trash — every last bit of paper, aluminum and plastic — in the garbage can, guilt-free. The city ditched its recycling program five years ago, saying that it had become too costly.

“It was something that needed to be done,” said solid-waste manager Steven Brown, who says Ocean City has saved about a million dollars by contracting to incinerate all its trash.

But don’t call it burning the trash — that’s old school. Here, as in Palm Beach County, Florida, it’s the cleaner-sounding “waste-to-energy” program. And with the cost of recycling climbing each time the price of oil drops, it’s looking better every day, especially as some worry that America has achieved peak recycling with a rate stubbornly hovering around 34 percent.

It’s probably coincidence, but recycling levels began to plateau about the time John Tierney wrote a now infamous piece for The New York Times Magazine, titled “Recycling is Garbage.” In it, Tierney said recycling may be America’s “most wasteful activity” and railed against government-mandated programs that created “a glut of paper, glass and plastic that no one wanted to buy.” This was in 1996, 16 years after Woodbury, N.J., was the first American municipality to implement mandatory recycling, with other cities eagerly following.

Recycling rates climbed steadily in the 1980s and 1990s. There has been scant growth in the past decade, however, despite cities’ enthusiastic attempts to engage their citizens. (Residents of Mt. Pleasant, S.C., qualified for random cash prizes last fall if they put stickers on their trash cans that indicated the kinds of recyclables accepted.)

In a 2012 report, the Environmental Protection Agency estimated that for every 4.38 pounds of trash they produce, Americans recycle about 1.51 pounds. When broken down by types of material, the rate can drop even lower. The recycling rate for plastics is about 23 percent, despite the billion water bottles sold every year.

One man’s trash

An anemic recycling rate is not unique to America. In the United Kingdom, they call it “green fatigue” — an initial burst of enthusiasm at the prospect of saving the planet, worn down by years completing tedious tasks like rinsing out peanut butter jars or prying off labels with no discernible difference to the environment. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch still floats between California and Japan, a sickening amalgamation of fishing nets, particles of plastic and random ocean-faring detritus. A plastic bottle will wear down — after 450 years.

The major problem with recycling for municipalities, however, is not the stagnant participation rates, but the cost.

In Ocean City, where year-round residents number just 7,000, the city reached a point where it could no longer afford to recycle, said Brown, the solid-waste manager. Instead, they rewrote the old adage about trash and treasure, changing it to “One man’s trash is another man’s fuel source.”

The city loads its trash into tractor-trailers that truck the waste to a commercial incinerator in Fairfax, Virginia; the heat and steam turn turbines that produce electricity. For every ton of trash that is burned, 670 kilowatts of electricity are created, Brown said. After incineration, any remaining metals are recycled.

Some Ocean City residents didn’t like the idea at first, “but most understood that it was a cost-saving venture for us,” Brown said. Those who wish to recycle still have the option of taking recyclables to county facilities, and Ocean City still recycles the more profitable white metals, and offers bulky item pickup for its residents.

Fired up

Recycling costs cities and towns in dual collection and sorting. Sometimes there is a payoff in the sale of recyclables, but that small profit shrinks further as oil prices diminish. When oil prices are low, it’s cheaper to make new plastic than recycle, leading one New York recycler to complain to a reporter for Crain’s, “Prices for recycled plastic are so low now, it’s not worth stealing anymore.” New plastic now costs 67 cents per pound, compared to 72 percent for recycled, Crain’s Plastics News says.

Of course, there’s another way that cities can profit from recycling: Charge for it. The town of Worcester, Massachusetts, grappling with how to pay for its recycling program, recently proposed monthly fees for it. While the goal, ironically, is to keep more recyclables out of landfills, one councilman told the Worcester Telegram, “It bothers me that the people who will hurt the most are the ones who faithfully and conscientiously recycle.” The matter is scheduled for a vote on May 20, but many Worcester residents are lobbying against it.

It’s unlikely the nation will ever enter a post-recycling age, but with many towns considering incineration, one Florida county is emerging as a model with its three-pronged approach to solid waste. Palm Beach County made headlines when it proposed opening a massive incinerator that would also accept waste from outside the county. It is part of an integrated program that also includes landfills and recycling, said Willie Puz, director of public relations and recycling for the Solid Waste Authority of Palm Beach County.

The county chose to build the $670 million incinerator when the local residents rejected its alternative: a new and larger landfill near the Everglades. When it fires up in June, it is expected to burn a million tons of garbage each year and add 30 years to the life of the existing landfill.

In addition, the county operates seven household hazardous waste drop-off sites and a biosolids processing facility that convers wastewater sludge to fertilizer, leaving the landfill as a “last resort” for waste.

As for the nation’s seemingly lackluster rates, Puz offers a sliver of hope: that reduced tonnage could reflect, however, small, a society-wide reduction in consumption. For example, with more people reading online, fewer print newspapers are published, and many of those that are have smaller dimensions. As manufacturers look to find ways to shrink packaging, even plastic bottles and aluminum cans take up less space. Ten years ago, Puz said, 31 bottles made a pound of glass; now 49 do.

Jennifer Graham is an East Coast journalist and author. On Twitter, she’s @grahamtoday.