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China Daily

Li Feng/China Daily

Waste management is a very important issue facing Hong Kong, so perhaps the candidates for the post of Chief Executive should take note. The implications of poorly developed waste management policy will have an enormous impact on the environment and further deteriorate the quality of life for many in the SAR.

A recent example is the plan to construct a controversial super-incinerator on the unspoilt island of Shek Kwu Chau, located off lower Cheung Sha beach on Lantau Island’s picturesque south side. The plans have attracted a very well organized lobby of opponents. Residents are receiving robust support from the Living Islands Movement, a community-based organization whose aims are to promote sustainable development on Hong Kong’s outlying islands.

This most recent plan for the destruction of an area of outstanding natural beauty in the outlying islands is being described as “the most expensive bonfire in the world”. The Living Islands Movement previously thwarted an ill-conceived plan by the government to build a super prison between Sunshine Island and Hei Ling Chau on 114 hectares of land reclaimed from the sea.

After a public review with which many people were dissatisfied due to issues of transparency, the Environmental Impact Assessment sub-committee recently gave its approval for the proposed super-incinerator to proceed. The Environmental Protection Department’s appointed advisers ruled that pristine Shek Kwu Chau and the already spoiled Ash Lagoons near Tsuen Mun were both acceptable locations.

Having opted for the more expensive and most environmentally destructive of the two, the approval enables the Environmental Protection Department to finalize its plans and seek funding from the Legislative Council for the project to proceed.

This action has outraged opponents who are now considering a judicial review. They dismiss the sub-committee’s conclusions that there will not be a significant environmental impact. Opponents are questioning the decision that has been made. The project, estimated to cost an estimated HK$8 billion to HK$13 billion, is designed to process some 3,000 metric tons of municipal rubbish a day, utilizing outmoded technology that will cause extensive damage and increase pollution in the surrounding area.

Interestingly the government’s stated planning intention for the area is conservation and recreation. This does raise questions regarding the decision by the Environmental Protection Department to proceed in a direction that contradicts existing plans, particularly as their name suggests that their overall remit seems pretty clear.

In addition, informed opinion also suggests that this expensive super project fails to adequately address Hong Kong’s solid waste management problems. So what happens next? There is no question that the issue of waste management needs to be addressed and that the existing land-fill sites are having a serious impact on the environment. With capacity over stretched they do not meet Hong Kong’s on-going requirements.

So let’s consider for a moment the root of the problem. It’s probably fair to say that we lag way behind other developed economies in our overall approach to solid waste management and in particular to recycling. Waste is treated as simply that and no regard is given to the long-term consequences or cost of poor waste management. Surely this is a case where policy makers should be leading the way and giving clear directives to all parties concerned.

There appears to be a carelessness that pervades in the territory in relation to our individual responsibilities. For example there are no clear directives regarding recycling at the municipal level. More importantly adequate facilities or incentives do not exist to promote best practice at the household level. As a result Hong Kong is a very difficult place to be environmentally friendly on a daily basis. There is a definite need for an educational process at grassroots level. Government should be addressing these issues as a matter of urgency.

If policy makers look at how waste management is dealt with in countries like Ireland or Singapore for example, they will be aware that there is a mindset that exists within these societies that considers the importance of efficient waste management as an absolute necessity, and of the utmost significance from an environmental standpoint and a fundamental pillar of a developed economy.

The Hong Kong government has just released a public consultation document on applying charges for municipal solid waste, so we can assume that they understand many of the issues and the need for action. But surely they should be taking the responsibility and the lead on this issue and not avoiding taking positive action as many believe to be the case. If it transpires that waste management charges need to be levied, then so be it.

As for Shek Kwu Chau, the Town Planning Board will shortly meet to discuss and possibly approve the necessary re-zoning. Following that, the Legislative Council Finance Committee has to approve the requested budget for the incinerator. It is to be hoped, on this occasion, common sense will prevail and the efforts of those lobbying the government will not be wasted. It would be heartening for all in the city if policy makers can begin the New Year by taking sensible decisions that are vital to our long-term well-being, as the economy continues to battle well in the very turbulent global environment.

Effective waste management affects many aspects of daily life, from overall quality to environmental, healthcare and a range of other issues that reflect Hong Kong’s ability to achieve the coveted aspiration of becoming Asia’s world city. These should not be opportunities lost.

The author is chairman of the Multitude Foundation and director of the Irish Chamber of Commerce.

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