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January 18th, 2014:

grist: San Francisco finds new life for dead threads

by Darby Minow Smith on Grist Magazine:

Style meccas, tilt your ears: San Francisco’s moving sustainability forward along with their fashion. On Wednesday, Mayor Ed Lee announced the debut of a city-wide textile recycling initiative.

San Franciscans trash 4,500 pounds of clothing an hour, according to the SF Environment Department. To put a dent in that number, more than 160 textile recycling bins were rolled out at noon in schools, stores, and libraries around the city.

The bins, and today’s announcement, are the first step in what will be a learning process for both San Francisco and the global clothing recycler they’re working with, I:CO.

To understand why textile recycling is more complicated than the standard plastic #2, cardboard, and glass, simply look down. How many different materials are you wearing? What are the blends? And are your duds in good enough shape that another person would happily wear them? The sorters at I:CO facilities use 400 criteria to determine where a particular piece of clothing is headed to next.

Anywhere from 95 to 99 percent of textiles can be reused or recycled, according to I:CO Chief Marketing Officer Jennifer Gilbert. About half of the clothing that comes to I:CO is rewearable and sold on the secondhand market. The rest can be broken down and turned into car upholstery, carpet padding, insulation, and stuffing. Even the infamously hard-to-recycle Lycra can be added in small batches to the shredder in mixed loads.


SCMP: Hong Kong’s professions must not be protectors of their own privilege

by Philip Bowring, published in the SCMP:

Hong Kong people are familiar enough with the power as well as wealth of the city’s landed aristocracy. Less obvious is the privileged position of leaders of some of the so-called “learned professions” – lawyers, accountants, doctors and the like.

Like guilds in medieval Europe that were created to enforce standards of workmanship and training on craftsmen such as weavers and goldsmiths, they have become over time as interested in protecting themselves from competition and keeping out new ideas as in looking after their clients. The Hong Kong Institute of Certified Public Accountants cannot be accused of overly restricting membership or imposing unreasonable entry requirements. But, not for the first time, its willingness to take prompt action in cases involving prominent members accused of misconduct is in question.

On December 24, it finally announced a decision in the case of Anthony Wu Ting-yuk, until recently chairman of the Hospital Authority and previously chairman of auditing giant Ernst & Young, the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce and the government-allied think-tank the Bauhinia Foundation – among a myriad other posts.

Wu was found guilty of professional misconduct relating to his involvement in New China Hong Kong Group, which collapsed in 1999. It then took 14 years for the institute to investigate and finally come to a decision on what, on the face of things, was not a very complicated case. It did so only after Wu had stepped down in November from the Hospital Authority and announced it on a day which ensured minimal media coverage. Wu received his top appointments despite the cloud hanging over his professional integrity.

It is better in principle that professional bodies police themselves rather than having governments impose themselves. But the Wu case leaves one asking whether anything has improved since the then Society of Accountants failed to act against Price Waterhouse in the case of the Carrian Group collapse. Price Waterhouse was Carrian’s auditor and its senior partner became managing director of Carrian.

Another accountant long showered with official appointments has also recently been in the news – Marvin Cheung Kin-tung. A former chairman of auditors KPMG and of the Society of Accountants (the previous name of the Institute of Certified Public Accountants), he is currently chairman of the Airport Authority, a member of several boards including HSBC and Hong Kong Exchanges & Clearing, and a former Executive Council member.

Cheung is rightly engaged in the debate over the third runway – though one might feel that coming from the private sector he would expect it to be funded commercially rather than from the public trough. But it was surprising to see someone in such a position with a public body make a big media splash defending the inordinate land lease privileges of the Hong Kong Golf Club.

For sure, as president of that club, he wants those privileges maintained. But his dual roles are another classic example of how some private-sector leaders have become installed deep inside government and can influence public affairs for private advantage. His comments on golf have also drawn attention to the existence of a private course on Airport Authority land, the little-known nine-hole course close to Terminal 2.

The elite golfers who cling to the claim that Hong Kong needs three courses at Fanling and spurn alternatives such as on Kau Sai Chau might get some sympathy if they ever used their position in or near government to spend real money on public sporting facilities, particularly for schools. The abysmal standards of fitness of young people, as revealed by recent surveys, is as much due to the lack of facilities as parental obsession with book learning and fears that sport leads to injuries. Public needs are not met by building a showpiece stadium.

Now we are told not to exercise as the air is too foul. Endless government expressions of worry about the costs of health care are nothing but hypocrisy until it invests in the prevention of disease – starting with clean air and opportunities for physical activity.

Another contribution to public health – and one with no cost at all – would be to take on the doctors’ lobby and allow foreign-trained doctors (and nurses) to practise here.

As revealed this past week, mortality rates in several public hospitals are far higher than they should be in a city with Hong Kong’s wealth and technical abilities. Shortages of beds, particularly in intensive care units, is one reason but staff shortages are even more to blame. Yet Hong Kong’s political system, which enshrines every principle of vested interest, ensures that it cannot easily benefit from foreign-trained doctors.

High-quality professional service is a major part of Hong Kong’s appeal. But it will not be sustained in the longer run if the professions are protectors of privilege rather than standards, and their prominent members are seen as part of the small group of mutual back-scratchers who turn up on every major private-sector board and government statutory and advisory body. The corporate state is the antithesis of Hong Kong’s spirit of entrepreneurship and social mobility – and of independent professions.

12 Jan 2014

Howard Winn: Government needs to rethink its waste management policy

from Howard Winn’s Lai See column on the SCMP:

We see that the forces in favour of building a large incinerator near Shek Kwu Chau are coming together for another push at getting the project approved by the Legislative Council. A South China Morning Post story recently reported that a group of academics and professionals were calling on the government to scale back landfill and get on with building the incinerator.

“We need to act now, or this will end with rubbish piling up on the streets,” said Professor Poon Chi-sun, of Polytechnic University’s civil and environmental engineering department and spokesman for the new Alliance for Promoting Sustainable Waste Management for Hong Kong. Poon says the government is right to adopt moving-grate technology – in which waste goes through a combustion chamber – in its incinerator plan, adding that the technology is used in 2,000 plants around the world.

What he doesn’t say, however, is that the number of operating incinerators and the installation of new ones is declining. In the United States, the number of moving-grate incinerators dropped from 186 in 1990 to 87 in 2010. In Japan, it fell 25 per cent between 1998 and 2005. In Europe, there is an overcapacity of incinerators because of successful recycling efforts. Not so long ago, New York City issued a tender for a waste management facility specifying that it did not want offers using traditional moving-grate technology.

Professor Irene Lo Man-chi, of the University of Science and Technology’s department of civil and environmental engineering, said the technology had been proved to be a reliable option that was safe in terms of emissions. This is a moot point, and there are peer-reviewed reports showing abnormally high death rates and incidence of cancer among people living near incinerators. We accept that modern incinerators produce less emissions but that is not to say they are safe.

One technology that is known to produce far less emissions than incineration is plasma gasification. However this is dismissed as the wrong choice by Lo, who says it wouldn’t be able to cope with Hong Kong’s volume of waste. And by way of support, she says that problems with plasma technology had led to the closure of a 10-year-old plant in Japan. She omits to say that the plant was closed because it ran out of feedstock. She also appears oblivious to the number of plasma gasification projects that are springing up all over the world.

Ever since the incinerator project was introduced, the Environment Bureau has refused to budge from its insistence that it must be built, even with the change of leadership at the bureau. It also continues with the politically expedient reasons for locating the incinerator at Shek Kwu Chau rather than at Tsang Tsui near Tuen Mun. But it is clear to many people that if any progress is to be made on this, then some aspects of the plan have to be rethought. About 42 per cent of Hong Kong’s waste that goes to landfills is food waste and is between 70 and 90 per cent water.

Clear the Air chairman James Middleton has spoken to three engineers who say it is perfectly feasible for food waste to be shredded at source using garburators and disposed of down the drain and handled by the Stonecutters water treatment plant, which is currently operating at 50 per cent capacity. This idea has been incorporated into the thinking of the New Territories Concern Group, which, after visiting various waste treatment plants, including plasma gasification projects in Europe, produced a report supporting the use of plasma technology. The group is politically significant and includes Junius Ho Kwan-yiu, who, in addition to being a former president of the Hong Kong Law Society, also has the distinction of having deposed Heung Yee Kuk chairman Lau Wong-fat as chairman of the Tuen Mun Rural Committee.

In addition to its support for disposing of food waste at source, the report suggests gasification as a more mature and appropriate technology to meet Hong Kong’s present and future waste management needs. It recommends the establishment of one or more pilot plants to determine the suitability of gasification technology for Hong Kong. This approach would give Hong Kong considerable breathing space for it to take another look at the options available rather than its current approach, which is making little progress.

4 Jan 2014