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Bad air days: three Hong Kong districts rank worst for air pollution

Green group says residents of Tuen Mun, Kwun Tong and Tung Chung suffer most; it also highlights dangers from higher levels of ozone

Those who live and work in Tuen Mun, Kwun Tong and Tung Chung spent more hours exposed to bad air in the first 11 months of the year than anywhere else in the city, according to a green group’s preliminary analysis.

On average, the duration of bad air days recorded by the Air Quality Health Index was longer than what was recorded on the previous air pollution index, which was in effect between 2000 and 2013. Kwun Tong recorded the longest consecutive amount of time with “serious” air pollution – the highest level possible – at 48 hours.


[1]In terms of recording “high” readings or above, Tuen Mun and Tung Chung ranked first and third for the second consecutive year, based on monitoring stations in those districts. They clocked 395 and 334 hours respectively. Kwun Tong was second with 344 hours, ousting Yuen Long, which came second last year.

The government says a reading of “high” on the new index means that children, elderly people and those with heart or respiratory illnesses should reduce physical exertion and outdoor activities, and they should stay indoors if a “serious” alert is in place.

Cheng Luk-ki, head of scientific research at non-profit group Green Power, said ozone pollution – a hazardous secondary pollutant formed by volatile organic compounds reacting with nitrogen oxides – was most severe in western parts of the city.

In a separate analysis of Environmental Protection Department data between 1999 and last year, the group identified a link between warmer weather and ozone formation.

By plotting daily maximum ozone concentrations against maximum daily air temperatures, Cheng calculated that a one-degree rise in temperature would lead to an increase in ozone by 17.4 micrograms per cubic metre in Tung Chung and 13.2mcg in Yuen Long district.

Cheng said the situation was likely to worsen. “The Observatory projected a rise in average temperatures somewhere between 1.3 to 5.8 degrees over the next century from last year’s levels,” he said. “This would correspond to an increase in ozone concentrations of 19.9 to 88.7mcg.”

Additional emission sources in the region – such as the planned third runway at the airport, the Hong Kong-Zhuhai Macau bridge, new boundary-crossing facilities and waste incinerators – would add to ozone pollution, he said.

Based on figures cited in a 1998 departmental report, the group said health care costs would soar by at least HK$988 million per year for the rest of the century – just from ozone.

Green Power CEO Dr Man Chi-sum said environmental impact assessments for new projects and towns still lacked the updated index parameters to account for ozone. “People actually live in these new towns,” he said. “How can they still not look at ozone or the current index in compiling impact assessments?”

An EPD spokesman said days with high pollution at the ambient air stations cited usually coincided with high ozone in the entire Pearl River Delta region, weak north or northwesterly winds and lots of sunshine.

He also said because ozone was a secondary pollutant, it did not have to be included in environmental impact assessments.

The department said it would continue to cooperate with Guangdong to reduce pollution.

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Nearly three times more plastic bags are being dumped in landfills than the number of bags reported by retailers under the 50 HK cent levy scheme, Director of Audit David Sun Tak-kei says in his latest report.

This throws into doubt the Environmental Bureau’s much-touted success of the levy scheme in reducing plastic bags and whether shops are accurately turning over levy collections to the government.

About HK$172 million from the levy was lost from 2010-13, The Standard calculation based on the audit report shows.

The first phase of the levy was implemented in July 2009 and by the end of last year a total of 3,543 shops of 48 chain groups – including supermarkets, convenience stores and personal-item stores – were registered to charge the levy. They were required to submit quarterly reports on the number of bags distributed.

The collected levy was then transferred to the Environmental Protection Department.

This April, the levy scheme was renamed to a charging scheme. It was extended to cover the entire retail sector with more than 100,000 outlets.

The stores get to keep the charges and are no longer required to keep records of distribution of bags. The audit director’s Report No 65 found that based on the department’s records, 228.9 million bags were distributed by retailers from 2010 to 2013. This compared with 572 million bags in landfills – a discrepancy of 2.5 times.

Last year, registered retailers reported their outlets distributed 70.7 million bags and paid HK$35.4 million in levies to the department.

However, the department did not have landfill survey statistics for 2014 yesterday.

The biggest discrepancy was seen in the first year: 153 million bags were dumped in landfills, 3.1 times the reported 49.8 million bags in 2010. Next was in 2012 when 156 million bags were found in landfills, or 2.6 times the 59.5 million bags reported.

The Audit Commission said the number of plastic bags in landfill surveys might not accurately reflect the effectiveness of the levy scheme, and asked the department to consider doing consumer surveys to assess the scheme instead.

But a spokeswoman for the Environment Bureau said the bags counted in landfill surveys covered all those collected, including bags from non- registered retailers.

She added that even some outlets of registered retailers may not fall into the requirements of paying the levy, as only those that sell food and drink, medicine or first-aid items, and personal hygiene or beauty products in the same shop are registered.

Secretary for the Environment Wong Kam-sing said the department would consider the audit’s advice.

Green Sense suggested the government raise the plastic bag charge to HK$1 to reduce use.

“We are worried that consumers have grown to a more relaxed attitude toward paying the 50 cents tax after six years of the implementation,” said project manager Gabrielle Ho Ka-po.

Proposal to build an incinerator in Hong Kong shows up the flaws of government self-regulation

The Court of Final Appeal on November 26 will hear arguments on whether the director of the Environmental Protection Department can approve an environmental impact assessment report on an incinerator project that the department itself conducted. And having approved its own report, whether it can then issue to itself the permit for incinerator construction.

Should a government department regulate itself – proposing, evaluating and approving a project? A simple analogy: should you be allowed to set your own exam question, mark your own exam paper, and give yourself a passing grade?

Regardless of the court’s decision, the debate over the incinerator has exposed the deep flaws in government self-regulation. The department, negating its regulatory role, became chief lobbyist for the incinerator. Its officials, in their zeal to promote the project, presented selective, misleading and outright false information on numerous occasions.

To justify locating the incinerator in Shek Kwu Chau island, the department claimed that building it in Tuen Mun, a far more cost-effective site, would unacceptably worsen the air quality there, contradicting its own report. Its officials misrepresented the incinerator’s cost in legislative hearings.

Their incinerator obsession blinded them to the waste-management policy of countries where waste recovery and recycling are as important as incineration. They visited Germany, Sweden, Denmark and Britain, which have such successful programmes, yet they reported no lessons learned on waste recovery and recycling, only incineration.

The department claims it conducted 120 consultations, yet the specifics of the project remained identical throughout the six years of “public consultation”.

The pitfalls of government self-regulation were raised by Christine Loh Kung-wai in 1997 when she was a legislator. At the second reading of the Environmental Impact Assessment Ordinance, she expressed concern “about the difficult task of self-regulation that the bill imposes on the administration”, given that in many important projects, “the project proponent sitting across the table from the director of the Environmental Protection Department will be another senior government officer representing some other aspect of the public interest”.

“We know there will be internal conflicts within the administration over how stringently to apply the bill in such cases,” she said then.

What does Ms Loh, currently undersecretary of the environment, think of the case at the Court of Final Appeal now?

Tom Yam, Lantau

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HK’s recycling rate inflated for years

An Audit report has found that the Environmental Protection Department (EPD) has over-estimated the amount of waste recycled in Hong Kong for years, which it says can drastically diminish the effectiveness of the government’s waste management program.

In a report released on Wednesday, the Audit Commission said the department’s estimate that 52 percent of the city’s garbage was recycled in 2010, was likely overstated by more than a third, because the figure included recyclables that had been imported into Hong Kong for processing and export.

The Auditor said this practice had distorted the effectiveness of the government’s efforts in waste management. It said the department should get more accurate data to better gauge its performance.

The report also criticised the EPD for taking “piecemeal actions” in the past few years to reduce the amount of food waste in the city.

The government aims to reduce food waste disposal at landfills by 40 percent by 2022. But the watchdog found that some correctional services institutions and public hospitals are generating large amounts of food waste.

The Secretary for the Environment, Wong Kam-sing, acknowledged the problems and said the government will do what it takes to address the issue. For example, he said the first food waste recycling facility will be completed in 2017.

Wong added that the EPD will consider adopting a new method for estimating Hong Kong’s recycling rate.


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Hong Kong’s air quality will suffer if bureaucrat once again heads environment department

Alexis Lau and Bill Barron

We refer to the report, “Appoint a professional to head Hong Kong’s environment department rather than a bureaucrat, say advisers” (September 19).

We strongly support calls for the new head of the Environmental Protection Department to be someone with professional expertise when the incumbent retires.

Environmental management requires trade-offs and compromises. Nonetheless, scientific evidence tends to be complex and involve uncertainties, while in the short term, political and economic costs may appear simple and compelling. Under such circumstances, as Melonie Chau Yuet-cheung of Friends of the Earth noted, “scientific evidence often takes a back seat”. This is more likely when the person making the final decisions lacks the required scientific background.

For example, the department is considering cutting back its chemical “speciation” network for PM2.5, arguably the pollutant contributing the greatest environmental health risks in Hong Kong. There are many sources of PM2.5, including marine shipping, power plants, vehicles, off-road diesel engines, commercial cooking and outflow from the mainland. We must compare chemical characteristics from different sites to determine the contributions of different sources to the measured PM2.5 concentrations. Cutting back this network will severely limit our ability to determine where the pollutants came from or design effective control strategies against them.

The science is well understood by professionals. One of the first steps the mainland took when it started to take air quality seriously in 2013 was to enhance its PM2.5 speciation capability. In Hong Kong, thanks to more forward-looking professionals in the department, it has been gathering such information for over a decade. This data was critical for the science behind the Clean Air Plan in 2013 and the subsequent HK$11.3 billion vehicle control programmes. It is incomprehensible that when governments elsewhere are trying to better understand the sources of PM2.5, the department is considering cutting that back.

In recent years, we have noticed changes in the department’s top-level decision-making. The hard-earned scientific and professional culture that used to make it a professional department, respected by colleagues and academics globally, has become noticeably weaker.

We urge the government to return to a professional-led department and reverse this move away from science-based assessment and decision-making. This is essential if the department is to keep its reputation as a respected organisation that we trust to get the science right when developing policy recommendations and programmes.

Alexis Lau, professor, and Bill Barron, adjunct associate professor, division of environment, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

Recycling the unrecyclable


Ming Yeung

As Hong Kong is lagging behind its neighbors in ridding its mounting waste, a Recycling Fund established to thwart an imminent waste crisis, stakeholders say, wouldn’t serve its purpose unless it’s put to good use. Ming Yeung writes.

The Hong Kong government has long realized that the city’s waste will soon have no final resting place, forcing it to kick start a Recycling Fund with a planned HK$1 billion injection to make it tick.

The government’s prolonged bid to expand the three existing landfills — at Tseung Kwan O, Ta Kwu Ling and Tuen Mun — and to build an incinerator at Shek Kwu Chau, north of Lantau Island at whatever costs has become snarled though, running into acrimonious public protests and debate.

The Environmental Protection Department (EPD) said the SAR recycled only 2.16 million tonnes of waste in 2012 — 860,000 tonnes less than the year before.

Of the total recycled figure, about 60 percent of the decline was said to be the result of a drastic drop in the trading of plastic waste, of which 320,000 tonnes were recycled in 2012, compared to 840,000 tonnes in 2011 and 1.58 million tonnes in 2010.


Three-colour recycle bins are window dressing and a sham

02 April 2015

I refer to the letter by Wong Hon-meng, assistant director, Environmental Protection Department (“Promoting recycling and waste reduction are top priorities”, March 23).

He claims that by 2022, Hong Kong will reduce its per capita waste generated by 40 per cent.

How has the department come up with this percentage? Most likely it has simply copied statistics from Taipei and Seoul where a 40 per cent reduction was achieved after waste charging took effect. But those cities developed comprehensive measures to sort and separate waste before they implemented waste charging, as pointed out in my letter (“Waste charge futile without separation of rubbish at source”, February 24).

The three-colour recycling bins are window dressing and a sham: only 700 tonnes of recyclables are collected every year, less than 0.02 per cent of the waste produced in Hong Kong. Operated by the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department, a clear accounting is yet to be published on how the collected waste is being disposed.

The department still does not have correct data as to how much waste is being recycled, having admitted previous figures were wrong, double counting recycled waste shipped to the mainland with that in transit through Hong Kong from overseas.

The HK$1 billion Recycling Fund Wong mentions is more window dressing. It is 3.5 per cent of the HK$29 billion budget for the incinerator and landfills expansion.

The proposed community education and recycling centres to be built in the 18 districts are handouts to pro-government environmental groups and subsidies to companies that collect recycled waste and ship it to the mainland, where 90 per cent of Hong Kong’s recycled waste ends up.

Despite talking about “policy” and “campaign”, the department has no intention of truly pursuing a recycling policy as many countries have.

There is no policy to develop a sustainable indigenous recycling industry, no statutory requirement nor public education on how to separate waste at source. Despite the many so-called inspection trips overseas by senior officials, paid for by taxpayers’ money, no insight and plan were presented on how other countries promote and implement effective recycling.

Given the above, it is ironic that Hong Kong will be hosting an international conference on solid waste management in May. Environment Secretary Wong Kam-sing will be the keynote speaker. What is he going to say?

Tom Yam, Lantau

Waste companies and government guilty of obstructive inertia

Friday, 19 September, 2014

I write in reference to Elvis Au’s letter “Waste already transported by sea [1]”, (August 27).

Gustave Flaubert, the famous French author, wrote that “Le bon Dieu est dans le detail” – God is in the detail. The phrase has also been attributed to the French architect Le Corbusier and the modern American-German architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

A deliberate variation on the phrase is “The Devil is in the detail”, meaning it is easy to come up with a grand overall plan for something, but difficult to justify that plan when all the detailed questions show up.

In the context of waste management, Ségolène Royal, the French minister for ecology, sustainable development and energy, recently stated that incineration is an obsolete technology and we should be moving towards a zero-waste society.

French multinationals Veolia Environnement and SITA – a subsidiary of Suez Environnement – are effectively a waste duopoly in Hong Kong. In France, the official waste “valorisation”, or the value creation rate from waste recycling, for these two companies is said to be around 70 per cent. By comparison, in Hong Kong the figure for the same companies is around 0.25 per cent.

Their global slogans translate as “making waste into a resource” and “global but local”. They and Au need to explain why these slogans don’t apply in Hong Kong. Judging by local figures, their slogan should be “do nothing at all”.

Hong Kong is at the bottom of the world table in recycling municipal solid waste, lower than many developing countries, making it the most wasteful city in the world.

Why is this the case, Mr Au? Who is responsible and accountable?

Premier Li Keqiang has forcefully stated that officials who obstruct progress by doing nothing are guilty of a form of corruption. The waste situation here is a prime example of such obstructive inertia.

The detail is revealing. Veolia and SITA on the commercial side, together with the Environmental Protection Department on the government side, are the primary vested financial interests in waste management in Hong Kong.

How much are waste management contracts worth each year, Mr Au? Who is in charge of the consortia favoured for all the proposed waste infrastructure projects in the city? Let everyone guess before you selectively reply.

Serafina Cheung So-hing, secretary, Anesidora Nature and Eco Education Association

dynamco Sep 19th 2014

We cannot have a Zero Waste policy without legislation
We have no source separation of waste legislation
We have no Govt provided collection system for recycled items which are currently voluntarily separated at source
The Govt intends to charge for waste collection without installing the two above measures so your nicely separated recyclables will get charged for & lumped in with the rest of the trash
Govt wants to spend money on ‘Green’ education centres in all districts instead of a big stick legislation
Recyclable items contaminated by HKG’s ultra wet food waste are useless – HKG deliberately ignores the advice of CIWEM’s worldwide policy on the use of the sewage system to handle food waste
Flawed ‘Blueprints’ are all wind no action
We have no method to handle remaining non recyclable construction waste that must be buried- yet Govt was offered a FREE 150,000 tpa Plasma plant that could destroy this , but refused it
HKG local recycling figures are fake & include transit import waste from overseas that passes thru HK port enroute China
All in all a retrograde disaster with Burn ‘n Bury policies
The waste collection companies cited are just using the system to get rich + the system is broken

Since Santa Monica resident Ms Loh is fully aware of California’s 77% recycling rate  and legislation it is ‘strange?’ that no such legislation is forthcoming here

Pearl River Delta governments axe cross-border air quality index

Thursday, 04 September, 2014

Cheung Chi-fai

Decade-old index scrapped in favour of online platform that has been criticised as redundant and difficult for public to understand

Governments in the Pearl River Delta area have axed the decade-old regional air-quality index in favour of an online platform offering pollutant concentration readings that has been criticised as hard to understand.

The Environmental Protection Department announced the change in a press release yesterday after the environmental chiefs of Macau, Guangdong and Hong Kong signed an agreement on so-called “regional air-pollution control and prevention”.

The three governments agreed to do away with the index and a related map that used different colours to grade air quality across the region – a system in use since 2005 to monitor changes in air quality after a 2002 cross-border pact to reduce emissions.

After the termination of that index, there will no longer be a single yardstick covering the whole region. Rather, three different air-pollution indices and alert systems will now operate separately in Guangdong, Hong Kong and Macau.

The EPD hailed the new agreement as progress, with hourly updates of pollution readings at 23 locations in the region, including the newcomer Macau, via an online platform managed by the Guangdong authority.

The platform displays a map of the region, with the hourly concentration levels of six pollutants, such as ozone and fine particles, shown at each of the 23 selected monitoring locations: four in Hong Kong, one in Macau and the rest scattered around the Pearl River Delta.

However, Guangdong’s environmental protection bureau already releases hourly updates of air-quality data on its website (and has since 2012), covering 111 locations in the province and the same range of air pollutants.

Dr Cheng Luk-ki, the scientific and conservation head of the advocacy group Green Power, criticised the change as “a step backward” and a “loss of a common language in air pollution”.

He said that while the old index was compiled based on the national air-quality standards, it at least offered the readers clarity and meaningful comparisons of air-quality measurements across the region.

“The public will now find it hard to understand the meaning behind those pollution readings, without a simple index to explain the impacts,” he said.

He said the online platform was already redundant, as it made more sense for people to go directly to the air-quality index offered by their own local environmental authority.

Professor Wong Tze-wai, an air-pollution expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who helped devise the city’s new air-quality health index, said neither an “oversimplified index” nor “complicated pollution readings” would be meaningful to the public.

He said it would be beneficial if the air-quality indices between Hong Kong and the mainland could be unified, but he believed that would be a time-consuming process with many technical problems that would have to be overcome.

Hong Kong now employs an alert system that gives air-quality information by neighbourhood on a scale of one to 11, displaying the health risk associated with each reading.

Macau and Guangdong, meanwhile, use conventional air-quality index systems that express pollution as one of six grades, with scales from 0 to 500 and from 0 to more than 300.