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Right choice

South China Morning Post – 20 Jan 2012

Edwin Lau says officials must rally Hong Kong to accept the best option for waste charging, and not cave in to the objections of vested interests

Why is Secretary for the Environment Edward Yau Tang-wah taking so long to roll out a legislative proposal on waste charging? After all, he’s been the secretary for five years, charged with the priority task of tackling Hong Kong’s mounting waste problems.

Some are sceptical about Yau’s timing for the recently announced public consultation that will end in April. By the time the government releases the consultation findings, this hot potato will probably have been passed to someone else.

The consultation document lists successful overseas examples, along with the pros and cons of four waste-charging options. One of them is a quantity-based charging option, which we believe to be the most effective of the four as it uses financial incentives to encourage the public to produce less waste, under the polluter-pays principle. Yet, officials hesitate to lead the public towards this option.

The first question raised by the media when this document was released was about the range of charges for the quantity-based option. How can the public give sensible feedback without knowing how much they would need to pay?

The public expects the Environment Bureau, with its professional knowledge and insight, to lead them towards the right approach, not to throw us “equal” options to choose from. Moreover, neither the fixed-charge nor the proxy-system option – which offers no financial incentives – can drive behavioural change.

Every proposal that either brings inconvenience or hits a person’s pocket is bound to encounter opposition from vested interests. The plastic-bag levy and anti-smoking law are examples of the fight the business sector can put up. Business interests can also be good at projecting worst-case scenarios to scare the public. Yet, despite these scare tactics, we now enjoy more smoke-free places and have established a “bring your own bag” habit on shopping trips to reduce the use of plastic bags.

Friends of the Earth (HK) has, over the past two years, carried out surveys of domestic waste from residential estates. In the 200 bags we looked at, 20 per cent of the waste was recyclable and almost 50 per cent was food waste. We should enhance the current waste separation and recycling systems to facilitate the collection of food and other waste. Then, through waste charging, recyclers will see business opportunities in food waste, glass bottles and other low-value recyclables, and they won’t have to be buried in our bulging landfills.

South Korea and Taipei city implemented waste charging in 1995 and 2000, respectively. As a result, their amount of disposed waste per person has dropped by up to 60 per cent, which has saved their governments money and reduced the pressure on expanding landfills and building incinerators. At the same time, the recycling industry has been developed to provide more green jobs in the community.

We have seen that as little as 50 cents can change behaviour in the use of shopping bags, so we do not require high charges to get Hongkongers to reduce, reuse and recycle. Yau should educate the public and legislators to get them to support the right choice, even when faced with opposition from stakeholders.

What is missing is not the technology to “treat” our waste; it is the political will of officials.

Edwin Lau Che-feng is director, general affairs, at Friends of the Earth (HK)

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