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How Hong Kong’s waste problem has grown with its wealth

May 2nd 2015

The problem of what to do with refuse is a relatively recent one; when most Hongkongers were poor, they found a use for everything – including bodily waste – writes Jason Wordie

Waste disposal remains a hot topic in Hong Kong, especially since the controversial incinerator project for Shek Kwu Chau, off southern Lantau, was – against all logic – finally approved.

Everything about this project is wrong: a remote location with high scenic amenity; exorbitant projected costs; outdated incineration technology; prevailing summer winds that will blow noxious fumes back towards the city’s most built-up areas, where air pollution is already a critical problem; and the cost of transporting solid waste there and removing the resultant ash.

Nothing makes sense except that the whole exercise provides a profitable boondoggle for those in the powerful construction sector, who will directly benefit.

Brownfield sites around Tuen Mun, where the ash will eventually be transported for concrete making purposes, are by far the best locations for such a facility.

But all were rejected for the flimsiest reasons.

None of the relevant officials were prepared to admit publicly that – as ever – powerful northwest New Territories vested interest groups simply wouldn’t accept an incinerator in their own backyards. Because what passes for government these days has no meaningful control in that part of Hong Kong – as recent parallel trading protests have demonstrated – sensible options were rendered politically and practically impossible. Our hapless Environmental Protection Department officials knew it. And that was the end of the matter.

But how was Hong Kong’s urban waste disposed of in the past? Until relatively recent times, there wasn’t that much. Large quantities of rubbish indicate generally affluent societies that can afford to throw things away.

The truly poor never dump items that might have further use; they simply cannot afford to do so. And until recently, Hong Kong and a large number of its people were overwhelmingly poor.

Metal cans and glass bottles were collected for their scrap value. Old newspapers were gathered, sold and reused for market wrappings before non biodegradable plastic bags made an appearance. Other paper scraps became kindling for solid-fuel cooking fires.

Faeces and urine were highly prized as agricultural fertiliser in traditional China. Collection and resale of nightsoil – yeh heung, or “midnight fragrance”, as human waste was euphemistically called – ensured that more than a few local fortunes owe their beginnings to the recycled contents of a crockful of You-Know-What.

These days, waste separation in Hong Kong is – for the most part – a done-for-show middle-class gesture towards greater environmental awareness. Most domestic waste remains unseparated and – in the absence of any meaningful glass recycling or municipal composting services, for example – why wouldn’t it be? All that waste that is meticulously divided by well meaning families goes into the same overflowing landfills.

Widespread cardboard scavenging and paper recycling, sadly, doesn’t signal the growth of greater environmental consciousness; it merely demonstrates that Hong Kong’s already catastrophic wealth chasm continues to widen.

Legions of old people with no meaningful government retirement protection (despite billions of dollars deployed on “white elephant” infrastructure projects, such as the Shek Kwu Chau incinerator) gather up flattened cardboard boxes late into the night all over Hong Kong.

The very sight of them is an ethical reproach to a society with Hong Kong’s trillion-dollar fiscal reserves. Some form of basic-but livable old-age pension scheme would barely dent this colossal hoard – and most recipients will be dead within a decade anyway.

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