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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Everything about this project is wrong: a remote location with high scenic amenity; exorbitant projected costs; outdated incineration technology; prevailing summer winds that will blow noxious fumes back towards the city’s most built-up areas, where air pollution is already a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.

Hong Kong recycling rate ‘drastically overstated’

February 10, 2014

China′s Environmental Protection Department (MEP) reported a significantly lower recycling rate of 39% for 2012, well down on the 48% of the previous year and a far cry from the claimed 52% for 2010.

Hong Kong recycled ′just 2.16 million tonnes of waste in 2012′, which is 860 000 tonnes less than 2011, according to MEP. About 60% of the decline was the result of a severe drop in the trade of plastic waste, of which reportedly 320 000 tonnes was recycled last year compared to 840 000 tonnes in 2011 and 1.58 million tonnes in 2010.

Recycling figures for Hong Kong were ′distorted by external factors′ beyond their control, MEP officials note. They cite fluctuations in the waste trade and irregularities in export declarations as the main issues in establishing an accurate recycling rate.

The system for calculating Hong Kong’s recycling performance will be overhauled, with data collection to be improved by the implementation of measures recommended by a yet-to-be-commissioned consultant. But according to MEP, it is unlikely that the ‘distortion’ will influence policy-making or the achievement of targets as detailed in the last year’s waste management blueprint.

Some industry parties such as the World Green Organisation are wary of the ‘inflation of the recycling rate’. Its chief executive William Yu Yuen-ping argues that MEP should convene an ‘expert group’ to review the system. The government would also benefit from setting up a registration system for recyclers in order to get first-hand recycling data, it has been suggested.

CTA says: What chance the Environment with so many rubber stampers?

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Hong Kong’s third-world water management system in urgent need of repair

20 March 2015

Asit K. Biswas

Over the past several decades, Hong Kong’s water supply and wastewater management practices have been on an unsustainable path. Poor planning, absence of sustained interest from its top policymakers, an uninformed public, lack of regular media scrutiny and a series of poor policy interventions have ensured that, today, it lags behind nearly all cities of similar levels of economic development in its management of water.

Hong Kong is a net water importer. Currently, 70-80 per cent is imported from Guangdong’s Dongjiang through multiple agreements. The Audit Commission reported in 1999 that the planners had so badly overestimated city water requirements in the 1989 agreement that some 716 million cubic metres of water literally went down the drain, which cost taxpayers, between 1994 and 1998, HK$1.7 billion.

Even after this sad performance, the next agreement was even worse. The requirement was again another overestimate. Consequently, between 2006 and 2012, the city had to pay for seven years of water imports but in reality used only about six years of water. This over-estimation cost the taxpayers another HK$2.8 billion.

As an adviser to 19 governments, I am not aware of a single city anywhere in the world which has consistently overestimated water requirements so badly for over two decades.

Not only has overestimation been a serious problem, but also no serious policy measures were taken to manage domestic and industrial water demands. At present, average water use in Hong Kong is about 220 litres per capita per day, a figure that is higher than in 2003. This is bad management since in nearly all similar cities of the world, the usage trends are generally declining because of better management practices and increasing awareness of the people that water is a scarce resource.

Accordingly, inhabitants of cities like Hamburg and Barcelona use about half that of an average Hongkonger. In Singapore, per capita water use has steadily come down in recent decades. It is now 152 litres per capita per day, which is still on the high side. An average Hongkonger uses 45 per cent more.

One of the reasons for this very high usage is because water and wastewater provisioning has been subsidised at higher levels with each passing year. The water tariff has remained the same since 1995, but costs of services have gone up steadily. This has resulted in some ridiculous situations, like the city providing private bottled water companies with highly subsidised water, which at the retail level is being sold at over 1,000 times the cost of city water.

The present pricing structure means that a round 14 per cent of Hong Kong residents do not pay for water and sewerage services. Each household now receives completely free 12 cubic metres of water every four months irrespective of their ability to pay. This is in contrast to Singapore, where its national water agency, PUB, not only completely recovers its costs but also makes a profit.

Furthermore, in Hong Kong, there have been no consistent attempts to educate the citizens on the importance of water as a strategic resource. This is again in sharp contrast to Singapore, where the population is regularly made aware of the value of water. The interactive permanent exhibitions of wastewater treatment and water management at its NEWater Visitor Centre and Marina Barrage have become major tourist destinations.

When compared to other Asian cities of similar levels of per capita gross domestic product, like Singapore, Tokyo or Osaka, urban water management in Hong Kong comes out very poorly. But even when compared to some cities in developing countries, like Cambodia’s Phnom Penh, Hong Kong does not fare well.

For the past 15 years, the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority has outclassed Hong Kong. Like in Hong Kong, Phnom Penh residents receive clean water which can be drunk straight from the tap. Both the poor and the rich pay for water at affordable prices, and no one receives free water, as in Hong Kong.

Phnom Penh’s water authority, a public-sector autonomous corporation, has been consistently profitable for over a decade and receives no subsidy. All its performance indicators have been consistently better than Hong Kong’s, with many of them better than in London or Los Angeles. Its planning and execution have also surpassed Hong Kong’s. For example, Phnom Penh’s bill collection ratio is almost 100 per cent, and unaccounted-for losses from the water system are about 6.5 per cent, compared to about 17 per cent in Hong Kong.

The question the Hong Kong public and policymakers need to ask and answer is: how did a third world city like Phnom Penh, which has limited technical and administrative capacities, no private sector to speak of, inadequate educational and management facilities and poor governance practices, manage to leapfrog a world-class city like Hong Kong so thoroughly in little over a decade?

Urban water management is not rocket science. There is no reason why any city of more than 200,000 people cannot have a good water system. It is high time for Hong Kong to do some serious soul-searching and find solutions which can radically improve its present urban water system.

Asit K. Biswas is the Distinguished Visiting Professor at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. An adviser to 19 countries, he received the Stockholm Water Prize, equivalent to a Nobel Prize in the area of water, in 2006.

Recycling bin contents not separated (since 2011)

March 21 2015

I was appalled last Sunday, when I saw the bins being collected at King’s Park at 8am.

All bins, regardless of content (and including designated recycling bins), were emptied into the same truck. There was no separation of refuse.

Are we just “pretending” to recycle to appease those environmentalists among us, while saving the extra dollars it costs to process, and all waste ends into the same landfill?

Annemiek Ballesty, Sai Kung

In fact, since 2011…

Plea against Cheung Chau incinerator allowed

13 Jan 2015

Suresh Chandar

A Cheung Chau resident has been granted permission by the Appeal Court to take his case against the building of an incinerator at Shek Kwu Chau to the Court of Final Appeal.

Leung Hon-wai had argued that the incinerator was very close to Cheung Chau and harmful materials emitted by it would harm the health of people on the island.

Mr Leung’s challenge was earlier rejected by the Court of First Instance and the Appeal Court.

But the Appeal Court ruling was a majority decision by two of the three judges

Don’t sacrifice Hong Kong’s country parks for a housing quick fix

4 January 2015

Roger Nissim

The restarting of a regular land sale programme in 2013 after a 10-year hiatus is one of the real positive actions of the Leung Chun-ying administration as it struggles to plug the huge gap in housing supply. There is no quick fix for this situation. There is no such thing as “instant” flats and the public needs to understand it will probably take another four to five years before an equilibrium can be found between supply and demand.

I am, however, deeply concerned that, in their desire to find quick fixes for the shortage of land, both Secretary for Development Paul Chan Mo-po and Secretary for Housing and Transport Anthony Cheung Bing-leung are starting to try to convince us that it is appropriate to consider rezoning green-belt sites and look at the possible use of land within country parks. These are both bad ideas and should not, as suggested by Cheung recently, be considered as one of the trade-offs necessary to achieve these short-term objectives.

Let us first consider green-belt sites. According to statutory outline zoning plans, the intention of this land-use zoning “is primarily for the conservation of the existing natural environment amid the built-up areas/at the urban fringe, to safeguard it from encroachment by urban-type development, and to provide additional outlets for passive recreational activities. There is a general presumption against development within this zone”.

Country parks are covered by the Country Parks Ordinance. The Country and Marine Parks Authority is mandated to “encourage their use and development for purposes of recreation and tourism”, “protect the vegetation and wildlife”, and “preserve and maintain building sites of historic and cultural significance”. There is a “presumption against any new development”.

Some 24 country parks have now been designated for the purpose of nature conservation, countryside recreation and outdoor education.

The wording here is unambiguous. It makes clear that these lands should be left alone to serve their existing statutory public purpose. The two policy secretaries are in fact encouraging both the Town Planning Board and the Country and Marine Parks Board, as well as the public, to overlook, and even subvert, their statutory responsibilities.

It is also worth reminding all concerned that, since 2011, the Hong Kong government has been committed to following the requirements of the international Convention on Biological Diversity and will be consulting the public this year on its Bio-diversity Strategy and Action Plan. This will require action not only to preserve country and marine parks but also to expand and enhance them.

Such tracts of land are attractive to the administration as, in the main, they are government-owned so there will be little or no cost of land resumption. But this would be a false economy.

By definition, the land is remote, likely to be hilly with trees, lacking suitable infrastructure such as roads and drains and at best could only be used for low-density, low-rise development. This would not be a good trade-off; the relatively small number of units provided could never justify the damage that would be done.

So what are the alternatives? Make better use of existing “brownfield” sites. There are some 600 redundant industrial buildings in urban areas which are now 40 to 50 years old and whose replacement with modern residential buildings would constitute positive urban renewal.

With the completion of MTR extensions west to Kennedy Town and south to Ap Lei Chau, all the old industrial buildings in Wong Chuk Hang, Aberdeen, Ap Lei Chau and Kennedy Town should be rezoned for residential use. All these areas have the infrastructure in place and are obvious targets for development. Lease modifications should be fast-tracked and, if multiple ownership is a problem, government resumption is an option.

The 2014 policy address identified 257 hectares of agricultural land in North and Yuen Long districts that are used mainly for industrial purposes or temporary storage, or which are deserted. This land should be pushed forward for early development.

Finally, the government should have the courage of its convictions and press ahead with the new town proposals in the
New Territories.
If 200 or so farmers are affected, as in the case of the proposed development in Fanling North, that is the price to pay if over 70,000 people can be adequately housed as a result. Surely, that’s a lesson in democracy, where the benefit of the majority should override the concerns of the adequately compensated minority.

So the message is clear: leave our green belt and country park land alone, and focus on other much more productive sites.

Roger Nissim is an adjunct professor in the Department of Real Estate and Construction at the University of Hong Kong.

Why won’t government listen to incineration alternatives?

18 December 2014

As the Legislative Council’s Finance Committee prepares to consider the government’s proposal to build an incinerator at Shek Kwu Chau, I hope – as a Hong Kong taxpayer – it will ask some good, hard-hitting financial questions.

The first of these should be whether the budget is realistic. The budget increases for this unproven project have been substantial. In Lai See, Howard Winn pointed out that the capital cost of the incinerator rose from HK$18.2 billion to HK$19.2 billion between April 16 and October 17 (“Shek Kwu Chau incinerator smells even before it starts”, October 31) and that in April 2012 when the Environmental Protection Department submitted the project to the environmental affairs panel, the cost was HK$14.96 billion. The final construction cost is likely to be significantly higher, but how will it be funded given the cost of other infrastructure projects?

Second, the committee should consider the negative impact on property and investment values in South Lantau and Cheung Chau. Lantau in particular is being touted as Hong Kong’s next major source of income: the bridgehead to the Pearl River Delta with potential for business, conferences and tourism. But who wants to invest in a hotel overlooking an incinerator?

Who will want to hike Lantau’s glorious trails or enjoy its beaches while breathing in whatever will be produced by this outdated moving grate technology, especially when similar leisure activities are a short plane ride away in Southeast Asia? One only has to walk from Mui Wo to Sunset Peak to understand this – but has anyone in the government actually bothered to do so?

Third, how about value for money? Even the department admits that about 30 per cent of what will be burnt – if the incinerator finally gets going on time in 2022 – will have to be transported to a landfill. And yet a landfill is exactly the problem it is supposed to solve.

Many times the advantages of alternatives have been laid before the government, but no one seems to listen. Plasma gasification, which is more efficient and could be arranged faster, was dismissed, unfairly, as untried. Low-cost and advanced recycling possibilities are routinely ignored.

After the political turmoil of the last few months, this is the Hong Kong government’s chance to show that it can listen and think about the future: Legco can help it take that opportunity.

Amanda Whitmore Snow, Lantau

Hong Kong lawmakers approve HK$7.5b Ta Kwu Ling landfill expansion, Tuen Mun study

13 December, 2014

Cheung Chi-fai

Environment officials had another victory yesterday, securing funding for an extension to the Ta Kwu Ling landfill and a study into expanding the Tuen Mun tip.

The Legislative Council’s Finance Committee approved the controversial HK$7.5 billion plan to expand the New Territories landfill, which officials had said would reach capacity by 2017.

Lawmakers will vote on a proposal to build a HK$19.2 billion incinerator on an artificial island near Shek Kwu Chau on Friday.

Officials can now proceed with the expansion plan for Ta Kwu Ling, which will add 70 hectares to the landfill and capacity for another 19 million cubic metres of waste. The building work is expected to be tendered out by the end of the year, and the extension should open by 2018.

Last week, lawmakers approved funding for the HK$2.1 billion expansion of the Tseung Kwan O tip, triggering outrage from residents who said they were considering legal action.

Both of the landfill projects had been delayed for over six weeks by filibustering.

Support from the pro-establishment camp was crucial for the Ta Kwu Ling project, which was passed by 34 votes in favour to 19 against. Pan-democrats continued their non-cooperation campaign by tabling amendments, at least 40 of which were put forward for debate – most of them from People Power’s Albert Chan Wai-yip. All were rejected.

Some HK$38 million in funding for a feasibility study into the Tuen Mun landfill expansion was also passed yesterday, with 27 lawmakers for it and 16 against.

Officials had tried to quell opposition to the plan by shrinking the proposed expansion by 20 hectares to 180 hectares.

Lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung tabled a motion that independent health checks be carried out on Tuen Mun residents before work began. But it was rejected, along with dozens more.

Hong Kong’s air quality falls after Occupy clearance puts traffic back on the roads

17 December, 2014

Sarah Karacs

Hong Kong’s pollution levels are creeping back to “normal” following the clearance of the final occupied zone in Causeway Bay, as calls for pedestrians to reclaim the city centre resonated among protesters eager to continue voicing their discontent.

The air quality in all three previously occupied zones of the city – Admiralty, Causeway Bay and Mong Kok – has already declined since the roads that had been car-free for over 70 days returned to normal. They were cleared of the tents and barriers of the so-called Umbrella Movement.

The Clean Air Network recorded increases in PM 2.5 ranging from about 40 per cent in Mong Kok to over 80 per cent in Admiralty and Central.

Hong Kong’s general air quality is below the standards set by the World Health Organisation – prompting green groups to call for pedestrian zones in the densely packed city centre.

The Occupy Movement “provided the perfect scenario of showing the potential results of creating pedestrian zones” said Kwong Sum-yin, CEO of Clean Air Network. “It flipped people’s understanding of roads: they should not be for cars but for people as well,” she said. “We need not ‘return to normal’ with congested roads and filthy air.”

A plea for the city not to return to normal also appeared on a giant banner hung up on Victoria Peak, sporting the wording “Don’t forget the original goal” – in reference to protesters’ ongoing push for universal suffrage

The yellow sign, measuring six metres long by a metre wide and attached to the cliff by several cables, is the fourth to have been put up by Occupy supporters over the last couple of months.

Last Saturday, a banner of similarly large proportions – measuring six metres by two metres – was hung from Devil’s Peak, near Kowloon, bearing a message that called for Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying to resign.

Environment groups like Clean Air Network have long called for pedestrianisation of densely-packed Hong Kong, where daily traffic jams are par for the course.

The group, which compared PM 2.5 levels before and after the clearance, recommends pedestrian zones in Des Voeux Road Central – a bustling street that is flanked by buildings on both sides, creating a “canyon-like” effect that traps emissions from vehicles.

“Now, with exceptionally positive results from the unplanned ‘pedestrianised-like zone’ the government cannot afford to turn a blind eye to this opportunity,” Kwong said.

Speaking at a summit on child health in Hong Kong in October, Professor Ruth Etzel of the World Health Organisation said that reducing air pollution should be top priority for local policymakers, warning that children are far more likely to develop illnesses as a result of poor air quality than adults.

“Hong Kong is in an artificial valley of skyscrapers, so the air settles and makes it very bad for children walking the streets,” she said, warning that their weaker immune systems meant that exposure to harmful particles could lead to lung problems later on in life.

Additional reporting by Vivienne Chow