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October, 2013:

Will ‘measurement’ of pollutants in HK take extraterritorial sources into consideration?

Cheung Chi-fai of the SCMP reports that Hong Kong will be linking up with the World Health Organisation (WHO) to ‘develop a mechanism to measure changes in air quality and public health’ to help the city improve its environment. The plan, if it could be called one at all at this time, is extremely vague, but even if it becomes the best-laid of plans, it would run into a fundamental problem: the basis of the study is an investigation about the city’s clean air policies, but some of the worst air pollutants come from outside the city’s jurisdiction. For example, ocean-going vessels passing through Hong Kong’s nearby shipping channels use bunker fuels with 2.75 to 4% sulphur content, significantly higher than the 0.005ppm(0.0000005%) of Euro5 diesel fuel; prevailing easterly winds blows sulphur compounds and respirable suspended particles (RSP) into Hong Kong, a situation worsened by the density of urban structures that helps to trap air particles within its confines. The many incinerators on the Shenzhen side of the border also figures to be a major factor in Hong Kong’s air quality.

This ‘plan’ would need more serious thinking if it intends to be anywhere near producing true analysis of Hong Kong’s air quality.

Click here to read the SCMP report:

More information on potential alternatives to sludge treatment

Currently, a new sludge treatment plant is being built in Tuen Mun, and it is quite likely that a large amount of sludge treated will be incinerated and deposited into ash lagoons in the nearby area of Tsang Tsui. Not more than once, though, has researchers suggested that instead of incineration, the sludge treated could be recycled for a variety of purposes. Here is a presentation made in 2001 by 3 researchers of the Baptist University of Hong Kong, explaining the possibility of such an alternative.

Missing SCMP story: Jim Middleton’s solution for treating Hong Kong’s wet food waste

This was the story that went out in some editions of the SCMP on 16 October 2013. But it didn’t make it online and some other editions due to some editorial mistake.

“We’ve come across a novel scheme for dealing with Hong Kong’s waste. A document prepared by Jim Middleton, Chairman of Clear The Air, says we can pour it down the drain. Not all of it – only the food waste, which accounts for 42.3 per cent of the total disposed of in landfills. Hong Kong’s wet food waste (WFW) has a high water content ranging from 90 per cent to 70 per cent compared with 30 per cent in Europe and around 50 per cent for Korea and Japan. Unsurprisingly, this makes it difficult to burn without adding additional feedstock.

It is this wet ‘putrescible’ matter that gives waste a bad name since it is the source of the bad smell that emanates from refuse trucks and land fills. The Environmental Protection Department (EPD) is planning two anaerobic digestion waste treatment plants which will treat a combined 500 tonnes per day compared with the 3,600 tonnes/day of food waste that is disposed of in landfills. These will generate about 7.5 megawatts of power and produce about 50 tonnes per day of low quality compost. It’s yet to be established if there is a market for this.

But instead of going through this process, Clear The Air suggests dealing with the food waste at source and make  every restaurant, wet market, business, caterer, hotel and household responsible for disposing of their own food waste as it is generated, by using waste disposal shredding (garburator) units with outfalls linked to the existing sewerage system. Given that between 70-90 per cent of the food waste is water, it could easily be handled by Hong Kong’s current sewage and drainage arrangements. This would halve the amount of waste going to landfills and give Hong Kong some breathing space to consider alternative approaches to dealing with the rest of the waste, instead of its proposed incineration proposal. The plan is for a large incinerator to be built on the scenic island of Shek Kwu Chau while tons of toxic ash are daily shipped to  ash lagoons at Tsang Tsui near Tuen Mun .”

“Invasion of flies” highlight HK landfill problem; government blames opposition to incineration and household waste production

A shocking incident occurred in Tuen Mun recently, where swamps of flies ‘invaded’ the town, causing serious disturbance for the residents; all manners of food attracted flies as magnets attract iron. Residents observe that the numbers of flies and other pests have increased in the past years as the nearby landfill in Nim Wan increased in size, and they claim that none of the pest control measures in the municipality has worked so far.

In 25 minutes, a new piece of A4-size flytrap paper is covered with flies. (Singtao/So)

It seems obvious that the source of the flies problem lies in the landfill, but government officials made two ridiculous observations in response to this. First, that “there were no swarms of flies to be seen” when lawmakers inspected the landfill, and that there was “no evidence that the flies had come from the landfill”. Shirking direct responsibility to tackle the situation, officials are now simply evading the question as to the source of the flies.

The second government response makes even harder reading. While admitting that the current practice of landfills is itself a problem, officials are blaming the opposition to incineration as the reason that the city has to continue landfilling a large percentage of its waste; with alternative solutions in plasma technology, it is difficult to understand why the government only understands ‘opposition to incineration’ in such a narrow context.

Do government officials think only in the two dimensions of landfills and incinerators? (Westinghouse)

Officials continue to harp on household waste production and push for measures to punish its citizens for it, when it has been pointed out that commercial production of unnecessary waste far outstrips household waste production; here again, the refusal to acknowledge the true state of affairs can only hamper efforts to resolve the problem of waste disposal.

Click here to read the coverage:

SCMP Letters: Officials stick with outdated technology

Frank Lee, Mid-Levels

Mary Melville is spot on with her comments on food waste and her invitation to the secretary for the environment (“Environment-friendly fix makes molehill of food waste mountain [1]”, October 12).

Besides the possibility of using special bacteria to convert biosolids sludge into agricultural fertiliser, there is a similar biological system (operational in California) that converts such waste into bio- plastics. It is reported that these biodegradable materials offer a realistic alternative to plastics derived from oil – seemingly a double whammy for environmentalists.

Many lucid letters have questioned the Environmental Protection Department’s plan for a massive incinerator at Shek Kwu Chau and its brusque brush-off of Green Island Cement’s efforts to use municipal solid waste (MSW) in an Eco-co-combustion facility proposed at its Tap Shek Kok cement plant.

Elvis W. K. Au, assistant director of environmental protection, poured cold water on this proposal because “this technology has not been used for MSW treatment anywhere in the world for large tonnages” (“Cement plan not yet viable refuse solution”, August 16).

I was therefore astounded to read the report (“Saving a packet”, October 2) about a firm that has been highly successful in using this technology on a large scale in Switzerland for some time and will incorporate the technology into its Asian cement kilns in India and Vietnam.

It seems that our Environmental Protection Department is getting well behind the curve. Cement kilns operate at 1,450 degrees Celsius and gasification plants burn at over 1,500 degrees, whereas the outdated incinerator planned for Shek Kwu Chau will only reach 850 degrees.

This has a large bearing on emissions and residue.

I also cannot understand why we are not planning to use already proven plasma gasification technology to generate electricity from MSW, in conjunction with Hongkong Electric and CLP Power. This would render the Shek Kwu Chau plans superfluous.

It appears our civil servants are bureaucratically locked into a plan that will not give Hong Kong the most effective, efficient, or environmentally sound outcome, and therefore the Legislative Council was correct to block the department’s funding request. By Mr Au’s own admission, the department has blocked Green Island Cement’s use of MSW since 2000, while all this time our landfills inexorably extend.

Perhaps when environment secretary Wong Kam-sing replies to Mary Melville, he can also clarify the confusion surrounding the Shek Kwu Chau project.

24 Oct 2013

Proposed 3rd runway on Chek Lap Kok creates more problems than the one that AAHK allege exists

The Airport Authority Hong Kong (AAHK)’s recent proposal to reclaim more land in the Pearl River Estuary to build a third runway has come under much flak, and perhaps rightly so. The AAHK is alleging that, based on the continued growth of air traffic volume in the past years, Chek Lap Kok’s capacity will be saturated by 2030. It seems obviously necessary to expand Chek Lap Kok, but this narrative is less appealing when one considers several other events at play: Chek Lap Kok is currently running only at about 65% capacity; neighbouring airports in Shenzhen and Guangzhou are aggressively expanding, providing fierce competition for the growth pie that is being projected; the airways around Chek Lap Kok are already congested in part because of this competition; poor economic horizon is on the horizon, which will affect airline profits; a growing market to consume internally China’s produce rather than exporting, reducing the demand for cargo shipment.

Rapidly expanding airports in Guangzhou and Shenzhen competes with Chek Lap Kok for both airspace and business. (Shenzhen Media Group)

Of course, AAHK can choose to ignore these warning signs and continue drinking the kool-aid. But they cannot ignore the very real problems that building the Third Runway is going to cause:

  • The increase in simultaneous air traffic is going to generate a lot more noise pollution, a concern for Tung Chung residents not just as annoyance but quite possibly a direct health hazard.
  • The reclamation work required for the runway expansion is huge, and will severely impact pink dolphins native to the Pearl River Estuary. This concern has already been thrown out of the window during the proposals for building the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge and should not be ignored again.
  • The expansion comes into a direct conflict of interest with Shenzhen’s cargo shipping network. Height restrictions on cargo ships passing through shipping channels in the vicinity of the airway will come into play, which will deeply displease Shenzhen’s port development authorities. Incidentally, they are already fuming over a failed proposal to expand the waterways near Chek Lap Kok, which the Hong Kong government rejected on precisely the environmental concerns for the pink dolphins that they themselves now ignore; Shenzhen officials see this slight as Hong Kong’s tactics to stave off competition.

AAHK’s representative saw fit to address only the issue of cargo shipping space, and even there, all there is is a single vague assurance: “putting in place an appropriate administrative arrangement between the relevant authorities in Hong Kong and Shenzhen”; no evidence that they have given the real problems substantial thought.

James Middleton makes a simple and salient point: it would be easier and cheaper to soundproof every single Tung Chung residence and change Chek Lap Kok’s from an 18-h to a 24-h airport, than to build a new runway.

It's probably easier to soundproof all apartments in Tung Chung than to build a third runway. (Square Foot)

Decision makers would do well to step back from dreaming of grand projects and justifying their legitimacy with visions of problems, while ignoring the real problems they would cause.

Click here for more coverage on this issue:

SCMP Letters: Green fix for food waste mountain

Mary Melville, Tsim Sha Tsui

Since the Council for Sustainable Development launched a consultation on waste charging, there has been a flurry of media attention on the topic.

While the pros and cons of the proposed charges have been examined in detail, the experts commenting through the media have shown little interest in pursuing rational proposals put forward by members of the public and NGOs on efficient and cost-effective solutions.

James Middleton, chairman of the group Clear the Air, has proposed what appears to be an optimum solution to the disposal of food waste, via our upgraded sewerage system, completion date 2016, at Stonecutters Island.

Food waste generated in Hong Kong is more than 75 per cent water, not suitable for either incineration or composting. Instead it could be collected from the wet markets, malls and collection centres and transported to transfer stations, where it can be pulped in large grinders and poured into the sewerage system.

When the waste water arrives at the sewage plant, it is attacked by special bacteria which remove the biosolids. The cleaned water can then be expelled safely into the sea. The residue solids can be dewatered and shipped to the soon-to-be-operational Tsang Tsui biosolids sludge treatment facility (with an incinerator). According to the experts, the capacity at Stonecutters will be such that our daily food waste would be handled in two minutes.

For small domestic units, it would not take an Einstein to develop a sink-friendly blender that would allow household food waste to be pulped and then washed down the kitchen sink or flushed down the toilet. These blenders could be provided free of charge to those families and elderly living under the poverty line. The cost would easily be recouped via a significant decrease in food waste being handled through the current “pick up and transport to landfill” system.

Could Secretary for Environment Wong Kam-sing advise your readers whether he is aware of and has evaluated this solution?

Perhaps the Environmental Protection Department is afraid to lose face by admitting that its pursuit of costly and polluting landfill and incinerator programmes has been overtaken by technological advances embraced by other government departments?

The taxpayer certainly has a right to demand that realistic and workable solutions to a community conundrum be fully evaluated and included in the array of possible solutions open to public consultation and comment.

12 Oct 2013

Climate change, ‘science’, and skeptics

The latest report (5AR) published by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) created an uproar for all the wrong reasons. In the months leading to the report’s release, many climate observers began to speak of how the global mean temperatures have not been rising as drastically as predicted by climate change models that previous IPCC reports have written about.

This information was seized upon by skeptics of climate change, who then went on to proclaim that according to data, global temperatures have actually cooled and polar ice caps have increased in size. They once again accuse political agendas behind climate change, insisting that programs combating a ‘mythical’ global warming is spending millions for nothing and instead hurting jobs and the economy.

2013 Arctic Sea Ice Minimum. An increase in Arctic ice has led to proclamations of 'Arctic ice is growing' when it is, in fact, still on a long-term decline; this is the 6th lowest extent of Arctic ice on record. (NASA)

It does not help that both sides like to make snide remarks or personal jabs that distracts everyone concerned from the real debates. Nor that the IPCC allow ambiguities to slip into their reports or leaks about internal disagreements between members on their findings. These are the things that colour media reports to make attractive readings, distorting critical thinking on the issue at hand.

What should be made clear is that climate change is a difficult science – it is not a laboratory of tests and trials, it is about observations in the real world of unpredictable changes affecting hypotheses, and making proper scientific interpretations of the observations. Not only is it important that we take note of how skeptics of climate change like to interpret data based on their own theories, it would be prudent to move away from a basic error of conceiving science as some kind of ‘predictor’.

Science is not about making predictions. Observations contrary to predictions does not constitute evidence that the science is wrong - precisely because it is not fortune telling.

Good science seeks explanations of phenomena as close to the truth as possible, setting up controlled experiments to test for explanations, thinking about results and explanations within and beyond the current epistemic framework. A theory is not discarded just because observed data deviates from expected observations; rigorous thinking has to be done about its setup, unaccounted factors, even mistaken assumptions.

The science behind climate change has limited access to these conditions. It has to somehow extrapolate laboratory findings into the world and reap in non-laboratory data, making its theories difficult to test. This does not invalidate its theories, only that more work and time is needed for a more complete understanding to come into being.

Perhaps organizations like the IPCC is rightly criticized for not being rigorous enough with their work and findings. But skeptics of climate change would be foolish to point to data (especially data chopped to their liking) and claim that climate change is a hoax. Climate change is not meant to be a predictor; it is both understanding and warning of how our activities impact the environment.

Acquiring and burning fossil fuels, mining for minerals, deforestation, altering waterways, dumping waste – these activities, ferociously increased in activity in recent years, leave behind visible negative impacts; at the same time, the weather has been changing in such ways that lives, livelihoods and food production are seriously at stake. Current understanding, limited as it might be, could be utilized to make good sense of these significant events. One could also spectate this duel in the media arena between skeptics and scientists about who is politically motivated or who has gotten it right or wrong. But one should not see any reason in gambling against the likelihood that the climate could stabilize if we reduce our demands on the environment by limiting our activities.

Click here for more information on this issue:

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.

SCMP Editorial: Decide quickly on waste charging

Waste charging has long been recognised as an effective way to tackle the mounting rubbish crisis in Hong Kong. Regrettably, it has been all talk and little action over the years. Meanwhile, our waste has grown by 80 per cent over the past three decades, even though the population expanded by just one-third during that period. With 9,000 tonnes of refuse dumped every day, our landfills are fast filling up. Unless decisive action is taken, and soon, the situation is not sustainable.

Yet another public consultation has been released by the government. The focus, thankfully, is no longer on yes or no, but how. The political will shown is to be welcomed, as are the details for discussion. They will pave the way for sustainable living for our future generations. It is in everyone’s long-term interest to study the proposals carefully and make the right choice today.

The suggestion of charging a family of three HK$30 to HK$74 per month does not seem unreasonable. Whatever the charge, it must be sufficient to bring about behavioural change yet be affordable to low-income earners. The idea of a waiver to reward the least wasteful households also is worth exploring.

The task goes beyond agreeing how much to charge. How to levy it is a bigger challenge. The options set out in the paper have their pros and cons. For instance, a household-based levy can provide a better incentive to reduce waste, though illegal dumping may be a problem. Charging on a per-building basis makes enforcement easier, but lessens the incentive to reduce waste. The community and the government will have to work together to make the right choice. The objective – encouraging less wasteful habits – must override administrative convenience, or the charge will merely be a levy to boost the public coffers.

No waste reduction strategy is complete without recycling. The consultation document acknowledges that separating recyclables is one of the ways to make a difference. The goal of reducing municipal solid waste by 40 per cent by 2022 hinges on recycling efforts starting now. It is essential that the government steps up efforts on this front.

No one likes to be charged for getting rid of what they don’t need. But a wasteful society like Hong Kong has no way out but along this road. The quicker we move, the better.


6 Oct 2013