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Critical questions evaded as HK government rep. responds to citizen concerns on waste charging

The proposed policy to levy taxes on waste disposal has stirred controversy, not just as a matter of petty finances but the grounds on which the policy should stand. An interesting correspondence between a Hong Kong government representative and Bob Carson, a citizen residing in Sha Tin, shows that while it is relatively easier for households to make changes to their daily routine, it is much harder for the government to face up to legitimate concerns from its citizens, much less to address the question of commercial waste generation that Carson raised.

People will be charged for waste created by manufacturers. (SCMP)

Below are four letters from the correspondence that appeared in the SCMP between August and September. In short, policy makers think that a punitive tax will incentivise households to presort waste and recycle more, that they will effectively police illegal waste dumping and ultimately, all these would change the mindsets of citizens regarding waste generation. Carson, on the other hand, notes that many citizens are already doing their part, or at least trying (for want of proper municipal facilities), but it is quite easily observable that the guiltiest parties of waste generation are commercial enterprises, and the government has made little effort in showing that they have even given any thoughts on this matter.

from Christine Loh, undersecretary for the environment, “Waste Charging Scheme would help recyling

K. Y. Leung says government public consultations are not much more than “going through the motions” (“Scheme will lead to illegal dumping”, August 15).

This is certainly not the case for the upcoming public engagement to be conducted by the Council for Sustainable Development on waste charging. We will shape the charging scheme based on what we learn from this important process.

Leung is concerned the logistics of introducing a waste charging scheme will be a “nightmare”. We certainly don’t underestimate the complexities, which is why we are engaging the public, raising public awareness and conducting pilot schemes.

Where we differ with Leung is he thinks we should focus on maximising waste recycling instead of waste charging. In fact, we need to do both. Without imposing waste charging, we will not be able to maximise recycling. In order to increase recycling, we also need to work with the public to improve waste separation. Sorting waste well increases recycling potential. Indeed, waste charging provides the necessary incentive for waste separation and recycling.

Leung is also concerned waste charging will lead to fly-tipping. This is a legitimate concern that every jurisdiction that has imposed waste charging had to deal with. We need a series of measures to deal with it, including public education and working with estate managers.

The risk of fly-tipping did not hold other jurisdictions back from introducing waste charging and Hong Kong should not feel defeated either.

Leung comments on two other writers’ comments about the “Shek Kwu Chau incinerator” and that there are “pecuniary interests” at play. Excuse me for not commenting on this as it is unclear what he has in mind in terms of the unspecified “pecuniary interests”.

27 Aug 2013

from Bob Carson, “Waste charge scheme will not work

In her letter (“Charging scheme provides incentive for waste separation”, August 27) undersecretary for the environment Christine Loh Kung-wai made it clear she is ignoring the concerns of Hong Kong people and intends to go ahead with the waste-charging scheme. She and her associates will force more bad public policy upon us after another “consultation” that somehow always supports the government position.

No one asked me. If they did I would tell them that this is more bad public policy, just like the failed plastic bag levy.

As you reported in July 2011, that levy resulted in the “amount of plastic we have used in bags” increasing by 27 per cent and garbage bag use going up over 60 per cent, while conventional plastic shopping bag use was down about 70 per cent. Reusable bags have 30 to 50 times more plastic than conventional ones, and don’t break down so easily in the landfill.

Retailers say the dollar amount of individual transactions is down, suggesting people are shopping more frequently and buying less each time now compared to their behaviour before the shopping bag levy came in.

That means people are making more trips to shop, with these trips contributing more to air pollution from public and private transport.

K. Y. Leung (“Scheme will lead to illegal dumping“, August 20) has it right: the waste-charging scheme will lead to more illegal dumping. I lived in one community that tried this kind of scheme and the police spent a lot of time trying to catch people fly-tipping in town while the sheriff did the same in the neighbouring countryside. There was rubbish along every remote roadway. We’ll have even more of that in Hong Kong, too, if the waste-charge scheme goes ahead.

Maybe it makes sense for business operations, but it does not make sense for private households.

At my house our pets largely consume excess food waste. Discarded rubbish is almost totally product packaging, over which we have little control.

If Loh wants to solve the problem sensibly, leave households alone and address commercial waste. Perhaps manufacturers could be encouraged, rather than taxed, to create more environmentally friendly packaging, as is done in some countries in Europe.

Don’t punish innocent people by making an already greatly expensive living environment even more expensive with another tax that will not reduce household waste. It’s just bad public policy.

12 Sep 2013

from Christine Loh, “Charges one tool for waste management

In his letter, Bob Carson (“Charging scheme won’t lead to less household waste”, September 12) has a crucial misunderstanding about waste charging.

While it is only one tool for waste management, it is an essential component at different steps along the way, including managing household waste.

It should be stressed that in exploring the option of waste charges, the key purpose is not to generate government revenue, nor to punish people. Rather, it is to provide ongoing incentives to encourage each of us to recognise that the waste we generate imposes serious costs on us all.

In fact, we already face costs for the waste we generate, but rather than paying for it based on how much we ourselves create, we pay through government expenditures to deal with impact of waste disposal on the environment. With waste charging, each of us will be directly paying at least part of the cost based on our own decisions and lifestyles. Charges serve as a continuing reminder that disposing of waste is not free and it incentivises us to make different decisions and to think carefully about the consequences of our lifestyles.

There will be a need to “police” a new charging policy. Waste charging is no longer so novel in the world, and different places have overcome problems such as fly-tipping in different ways. Hong Kong too will find its way.

Tellingly, Carson notes: “Perhaps manufacturers could be encouraged, rather than taxed, to create more environmentally friendly packaging”.

This is the heart of the matter. Charging (taxing) is not a substitute to providing incentives – it is potentially one of the most effective forms of incentive to be used as part of a larger package of measures. I agree with Carson that such incentives must be strengthened.

17 Sep 2013

from Bob Carson, “People will face unfair waste charges

Undersecretary for the environment Christine Loh (“Charges one tool for waste management”, September 17) responded to my letter (“Charging scheme won’t lead to less household waste”, September 12), saying we have to make people pay for the waste they generate “based on their own decisions and lifestyles”.

I don’t “misunderstand”: a blanket-charging scheme that penalises everyone is more punitive than an incentive.

I recently visited a large mall to see the waste generated. Four-wheel trolleys with loads of flattened boxes more than a metre high were aggregated at a collection point.

Food waste was being collected at one restaurant in large bins over a metre tall. I don’t know if that waste would be compacted, composted, fed to pigs, or sent to the landfill, but the volume was impressive.

In contrast, at our household of four people and four pets, following last Tuesday’s three meals, we had some paper packaging, six tins, two bottles, one empty milk carton, and the waste tissue paper from the toilet. The organic waste was less than a saucepan full of apple peels and cores, two banana skins, and a small amount of food from the drain filter in the kitchen sink.

We’d like to recycle the cans and bottles, but our housing estate has no facilities.

If it did, and if it were possible for estate management to make it easy for people to use these facilities while controlling insects attracted by unwashed food containers, much more could be recycled. Of course, if we have to wash the cans and bottles before they are recycled, we’ll be using more water to do so, which is another environmental cost of this unfortunate plan.

In short, we can only buy food and household goods packaged as offered. This is not a matter of Loh’s consumer “decisions and lifestyles”, but a retail environment where people can either buy food and other items as packaged or not buy them at all.

Charging people who are already struggling to make ends meet for disposal of waste the volume of which they largely cannot control will achieve little. It is just more bad public policy.

I repeat: the incentives need to be for manufacturers to provide products packaged in a form that will be environmentally friendly. Perhaps estates could be incentivised to provide recycling facilities, too. But don’t frustrate already financially struggling families.

That is not where the controllable waste is coming from.

30 Sep 2013

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