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Crazy Shek Kwu Chau “Bonfire” Plans

Ming Pao – 15 Jan 2012

Crazy Shek Kwu Chau “Bonfire” Plans

If you’re on Cheung Chau, look west across the harbour, and you’ll see a small island: Shek Kwu Chau. It appears deserted, but hosts a drug rehabilitation centre.

Wildlife surveys led by US biologist Dr James Lazell, director of the Conservation Agency, have discovered reptiles including two snakes – Hollinrake’s Racer and a sub-species of Jade Vine Snake – that are unique to the island, along with Bogadek’s legless lizard, which is known from only three Hong Kong islands. This is one of perhaps eight nesting sites for white-bellied sea-eagle in Hong Kong. Waters along the west coast are key haunts of Hong Kong’s small population of Indo-Pacific finless porpoise, which the International Union for the Conservation of Nature classes as Vulnerable to global extinction.

With the Soko Islands further west, and the beautiful south coast of Lantau to the north, it’s not surprising that in 2001 a government development strategy for the southwest New Territories included a plan to “protect and conserve the relatively unspoilt marine environment while providing recreational and educational opportunities to the public in these areas”.

Yet there was a surprise last year, when the government determined that Shek Kwu Chau was the preferred location for building one of the world’s largest waste incinerators, burning 3000 tonnes of waste per day. Plans call for this to be on an artificial island, constructed just off the southwest coast of Shek Kwu Cha, in prime porpoise habitat. It will be an industrial site with a 150-metre chimney – almost as tall as the HSBC Bank Building.

The incinerator plans have met widespread opposition for a host of reasons, including the damage to wildlife and fisheries, severe impact on scenery in a beautiful area, and massive financial cost. Seventeen groups including Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace Hong Kong, Green Sense and the Living Islands Movement have signed a joint statement outlining their concerns. Plus, incinerator technology is dated, likely threatening public health – and there are cheaper, cleaner, more sophisticated ways to deal with Hong Kong’s waste than simply setting fire to it.

Incineration Dates from the Stone Age

Incineration – using fire as a means of waste disposal – dates back to the Stone Age. The first waste incinerators were built in the late 19th century.

From the late 1960s, Hong Kong turned to incineration to reduce the volume of waste sent to landfills. Four waste incineration plants were built, but in 1989 a government white paper on pollution noted, “Incinerators are a major source of pollution in the urban areas. They account for approximately 18% of all respirable particulates emitted into the atmosphere of the territory and can be a source also of trace quantities of highly toxic substances.” The incinerators were phased out, with the last of them – at Kwai Chung – ceasing operation in 1997.

Incinerator technologies have since improved, such as through greatly reducing emissions of dioxins which, according to the World Health Organization, “are highly toxic and can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer”. In 2005, the Hong Kong government published a strategy for dealing with waste, with plans including use of “state-of-the-art technology to treat unavoidable waste in a cost-effective, yet environmentally sustainable, manner”. Conveniently forgetting the 1989 white paper, this announced the core technology would be incineration.

According to the strategy, Hong Kong would first introduce charging for waste disposal; and before waste was sent to the incinerator it would be sorted, so would not include food waste or recyclable materials. Plus, there would be “stringent emission standards that command public confidence”.

It seems the government has since proven even more forgetful. Waste charging remains just an idea, we have little waste separation, and the incinerator will burn predominantly unsorted waste.  Though the government makes much of the incinerator using a moving grate for better burning, plus temperatures of around 850C to safeguard against dioxins, there is strong public concern instead of confidence concerning the likely emissions.

Potential Health Hazard

Even the incinerator’s planned design seems cause for concern – as it’s 150 metre chimney will be the same height as the chimney of the dirty and demolished Kwai Chung Incinerator Plant. Burning unsorted waste will increase the risks of emissions including toxins such as heavy metals and dioxins. Though the Environmental Protection Department claims there will be low levels of toxins, it also highlights the fact that Shek Kwu Chau is in southwest Hong Kong, so prevailing northeasterly winds will often blow away from the territory.

As so often with air pollution, it can be hard to be certain about health impacts of waste incinerators. The British Society for Ecological Medicine has produced one of the best reports on the issue, outlining a host of potential and likely problems, and noting, “probably the most dangerous pollutant of all is the PM2.5 particulate … it is not possible to build a major source of PM2.5 particulates, such as an incinerator, without lives being lost… The majority of studies around incinerators have shown excesses of cancers.”

In the UK, a major study will soon begin assessing evidence suggesting there are significantly higher rates of infant mortalities in areas downwind of incinerators. Other apparent health effects include high rates of asthma around the world’s largest waste incinerator, in Detroit, US.

“In 2006 we assumed that any incineration technology adopted in Hong Kong would be state-of-the-art and ensure that pollutant emissions were minimized to the greatest possible extent,” comments one of Hong Kong’s staunchest campaigners for cleaner air, Professor Anthony Hedley, former Chair Professor of Community Medicine at the University of Hong Kong. “This now appears not to be the case and is unacceptable from a public health viewpoint.  This is especially so, given that the EPD is apparently defaulting to depending on air movement to mitigate the impact of emissions locally and will only monitor mass concentrations four times a year.”

It is not only the emissions that are cause for concern. Pollutants that don’t escape as gases will be trapped in the chimney, forming fly ash so toxic that in many jurisdictions it is treated as hazardous waste. According to the British Society for Ecological Medicine, fly ash contains over 98% of dioxins produced by an incinerator together with heavy metals, “making it some of the most toxic material on the planet”.

Plans call for the fly ash plus ash from below the flames to be dumped in the West New Territories Landfill, north of Tuen Mun. Yet there are suspicions that the government’s recently announced plan for a possible artificial island south of Cheung Chau is at least partly to create a more suitable site for dumping the ash. No matter where the ash is headed for, it will be hard to prevent it being blown by the wind, and surely impossible to prevent the toxins escaping into coastal waters over time.

Alternative Technologies: Tried and Tested, and World-changing

Even in 2005, moving grate incineration was far from “state-of-the-art technology”; it was based on techniques first developed in the 1920s. Today, it seems even more primitive – and there are cleaner, cheaper, more sophisticated ways of treating waste.

One way that’s tried and tested is called anaerobic digestion. This involves using micro-organisms to break down organic matter such as food waste – creating methane that can be burnt to produce energy, along with compost. But partly as Hong Kong has little need for compost, its development is rudimentary here.

Another way is truly “state-of-the-art”, and is based on using extremely hot plasma to blast molecules apart, resulting in relatively simple gas mixtures and glassy solids. In 2009, Scientific American described plasma gasification as “lighting in a bottle”, and featured it among “20 Ways to Build a Cleaner, Healthier, Smarter World”.

The Environmental Protection Department seems determined that plasma gasification will not build a cleaner Hong Kong. Deputy director Elvis Au says they have contacted a few technology suppliers, which indicated they cannot meet Hong Kong’s needs.

This assertion conflicts with information from two suppliers. Brian Miloski, Chief Financial Officer of US company Solena, has submitted a proposal to build plasma arc facilities that would treat all Hong Kong waste, using heat to generate electricity, and combining components of the resulting gas to create jet fuel – which could be bought by Cathay Pacific. Though creation of jet fuel from domestic waste seems futuristic, Solena is already working on plans for similar plans together with British Airways, Qantas, SAS, and a consortium of American Airlines. Asked if the process can treat 3000 tonnes of waste per day, Miloski replied, “There is no theoretical limit. The gasification chambers are simple modular and you add on as many as you need.” He advises building the facilities at the three landfills.

UK based Advanced Plasma Power adopts a similarly modular approach to waste treatment. After successful trials with a demonstration plant, they are developing projects including a joint venture to mine over 16 million tonnes of waste from a Belgian landfill, extracting recyclable material such as metal and using gasification to create energy. According to an email to me from Les Liddiard, vice president of sister company Tetronics, Advanced Plasma Power can treat Hong Kong waste, using a combination of modular approach and regional facilities. Just as with Solena, there’s no need to build the gasification plants beside a remote island

The EPD’s consultant for the incinerator project, Aecom, considers that, “scaling up the plasma gasification technology for adoption in the present IWMF [Integrated Waste Management Facility] project would be very risky and hence not advisable.” And yet … in the US, Aecom is involved in a project to gasify about 1200 tons of waste per day, and announced, “We believe that this technology is not only environmentally friendly but ready for large-scale commercialization.”

Contradictions, Questions and Politics

Why such contradictory statements by Aecom in Hong Kong and the US? Well, you might want to consider this: in 2009, Aecom advised that Hong Kong should use incineration; Aecom then conducted the environmental impact assessment to select the site for the incinerator; and in November last year – a month before the environmental impact assessment process was complete – Aecom proudly announced it had been awarded a consultancy contract for developing the incinerator.

There are more contradictions, more questions, regarding the mega incinerator plans. For instance, why has the government dismissed an alternative incineration proposal by Green Island Cement, even though it has conducted a successful pilot project? What are the real reasons Shek Kwu Chau is considered a suitable site for a mega incinerator, especially as the alternative – at Tsang Tsui, near Tuen Mun, is lagoons with power plant ash, of minimal environmental value? Why has no official construction cost been given, and are unofficial estimates of HK$13 billion accurate?

The government claims the incinerator will be attractive, and clean. I once asked Elvis Au: “So why not build it beside Tamar, so government officials can enjoy looking at it?” He replied that the emissions would make the area’s air quality worse than permitted by the Air Quality Objectives. Aha, so this means the incinerator is ok for Shek Kwu Chau, but too dirty for the city.

Now, the key question to ask is surely: Is this time to reconsider our direction, assess possibilities, and find better options, so Hong Kong shows the way forward for waste treatment, not the way backward?

World Cities and Waste


Touted as a role model for Hong Kong, with four waste incinerators, and ash sent to a landfill “island” that will be full by 2040.

Toronto, Canada

Strong emphasis on separation of waste, with suitable materials processed by anaerobic digestion. Producing biogas, and aims to use this to power waste trucks.

Manchester, UK

Aiming to become a “world-class city” in terms of waste treatment, building five centres for separation and biological treatment of waste.

Tees Valley, UK

About to build a plasma gasification facility to treat 950 tonnes of waste per day.

San Francisco, US

Adopting a “zero waste” strategy, in which nothing would go to landfills or be incinerated. Currently recovers 77 percent of the materials it discards, with goal of zero waste by 2020.

Hong Kong, Asia’s World City

Plans to build mega-incinerator in beautiful area earmarked for conservation and leisure tourism. Nine recycling centres – around one per 800,000 people, with waste separation and recycling partly reliant on non-governmental organizations, and elderly ladies digging cans from waste bins and collecting newspapers at subway stations.

Dr Martin Williams

I have a PhD in Physical Chemistry from Cambridge University, UK; obtained this through conducting experiments in which used a strong electrical discharge to blast apart water molecules, and followed reactions with a laser. Lived in Hong Kong since 1987, working mainly as freelance writer and photographer specialising in wildlife and conservation issues, as well as environmental consultant, including for World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.

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