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November 19th, 2015:

Food waste sickens auditor

The Audit Commission slammed the Environment Bureau for taking piecemeal action in controlling food waste, some 1.18 million tonnes of which were disposed in landfills in 2013, up 13 percent from 2004.

The Correctional Services Department and Hospital Authority were among the worst wasters of food.

The commission estimated that an average patient would waste 0.31 kilograms of food each day based on records from all 38 public hospitals from July to August.

A Hospital Authority spokesman said: “In fact, the quantity of food waste in public hospitals has seen a decreasing trend in recent years with the launching of a series of measures such as the save-rice program, adjusting the quantity of food supply to individual patients basing on need.”

He said the authority will “seriously consider” the audit recommendation of periodically publishing food-waste quantity.

Meanwhile, the audit report also pointed out that the HK$16 million Kowloon Bay Pilot Composting Plant may only handle a quarter of the food waste that the government claimed.

The Environment Bureau boasted in 2009 that the plan could handle up to four tonnes of food waste a day, but the audit found that it only handles 0.89 tonnes daily since it was put into use in 2008 up to June this year.

The commission also found that a third of vacant school premises have not been returned to the government even though they have been idle for an average of 11 years, with one school unused for over 35 years.

Another school on a 4,000-square-meter site in Tai Po, vacant since 1996, has not been reused, after the Lands Department was told in a phone call that the building was iconic and serves as a village memorial.

Of 234 vacant school premises in the Education Bureau database, 105 were not being used as of April 30 this year, 102 were being used and 27 had been or would be demolished for housing or other developments.

Of the 105 idle ex-schools, 29 were under the bureau’s purview. Twelve had been allocated for school use but had been idle for up to 11.6 years.

Seventy-three vacant ex-premises are under the Lands Department, among which is a school in the New Territories left idle for 35.6 years.

Education sector lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen described the vacant school campuses as “a pitiful waste.”

Ip added: “The Education Bureau and the government have put the most precious and limited resource in Hong Kong land into waste.”


Nearly three times more plastic bags are being dumped in landfills than the number of bags reported by retailers under the 50 HK cent levy scheme, Director of Audit David Sun Tak-kei says in his latest report.

This throws into doubt the Environmental Bureau’s much-touted success of the levy scheme in reducing plastic bags and whether shops are accurately turning over levy collections to the government.

About HK$172 million from the levy was lost from 2010-13, The Standard calculation based on the audit report shows.

The first phase of the levy was implemented in July 2009 and by the end of last year a total of 3,543 shops of 48 chain groups – including supermarkets, convenience stores and personal-item stores – were registered to charge the levy. They were required to submit quarterly reports on the number of bags distributed.

The collected levy was then transferred to the Environmental Protection Department.

This April, the levy scheme was renamed to a charging scheme. It was extended to cover the entire retail sector with more than 100,000 outlets.

The stores get to keep the charges and are no longer required to keep records of distribution of bags. The audit director’s Report No 65 found that based on the department’s records, 228.9 million bags were distributed by retailers from 2010 to 2013. This compared with 572 million bags in landfills – a discrepancy of 2.5 times.

Last year, registered retailers reported their outlets distributed 70.7 million bags and paid HK$35.4 million in levies to the department.

However, the department did not have landfill survey statistics for 2014 yesterday.

The biggest discrepancy was seen in the first year: 153 million bags were dumped in landfills, 3.1 times the reported 49.8 million bags in 2010. Next was in 2012 when 156 million bags were found in landfills, or 2.6 times the 59.5 million bags reported.

The Audit Commission said the number of plastic bags in landfill surveys might not accurately reflect the effectiveness of the levy scheme, and asked the department to consider doing consumer surveys to assess the scheme instead.

But a spokeswoman for the Environment Bureau said the bags counted in landfill surveys covered all those collected, including bags from non- registered retailers.

She added that even some outlets of registered retailers may not fall into the requirements of paying the levy, as only those that sell food and drink, medicine or first-aid items, and personal hygiene or beauty products in the same shop are registered.

Secretary for the Environment Wong Kam-sing said the department would consider the audit’s advice.

Green Sense suggested the government raise the plastic bag charge to HK$1 to reduce use.

“We are worried that consumers have grown to a more relaxed attitude toward paying the 50 cents tax after six years of the implementation,” said project manager Gabrielle Ho Ka-po.

Proposal to build an incinerator in Hong Kong shows up the flaws of government self-regulation

The Court of Final Appeal on November 26 will hear arguments on whether the director of the Environmental Protection Department can approve an environmental impact assessment report on an incinerator project that the department itself conducted. And having approved its own report, whether it can then issue to itself the permit for incinerator construction.

Should a government department regulate itself – proposing, evaluating and approving a project? A simple analogy: should you be allowed to set your own exam question, mark your own exam paper, and give yourself a passing grade?

Regardless of the court’s decision, the debate over the incinerator has exposed the deep flaws in government self-regulation. The department, negating its regulatory role, became chief lobbyist for the incinerator. Its officials, in their zeal to promote the project, presented selective, misleading and outright false information on numerous occasions.

To justify locating the incinerator in Shek Kwu Chau island, the department claimed that building it in Tuen Mun, a far more cost-effective site, would unacceptably worsen the air quality there, contradicting its own report. Its officials misrepresented the incinerator’s cost in legislative hearings.

Their incinerator obsession blinded them to the waste-management policy of countries where waste recovery and recycling are as important as incineration. They visited Germany, Sweden, Denmark and Britain, which have such successful programmes, yet they reported no lessons learned on waste recovery and recycling, only incineration.

The department claims it conducted 120 consultations, yet the specifics of the project remained identical throughout the six years of “public consultation”.

The pitfalls of government self-regulation were raised by Christine Loh Kung-wai in 1997 when she was a legislator. At the second reading of the Environmental Impact Assessment Ordinance, she expressed concern “about the difficult task of self-regulation that the bill imposes on the administration”, given that in many important projects, “the project proponent sitting across the table from the director of the Environmental Protection Department will be another senior government officer representing some other aspect of the public interest”.

“We know there will be internal conflicts within the administration over how stringently to apply the bill in such cases,” she said then.

What does Ms Loh, currently undersecretary of the environment, think of the case at the Court of Final Appeal now?

Tom Yam, Lantau

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