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September 30th, 2015:

Hong Kong recyclers ‘need more manpower, not machines’ from government’s HK$1b Recycling Fund, industry insiders say

Ernest Kao

Government fund that will subsidise equipment would be better spent on improving collecting and sorting among workers, insiders say

A provision in the government’s new HK$1 billion Recycling Fund that allows recyclers to receive subsidies for new equipment should be reworked to help street collectors find and sort materials instead, industry insiders say.

Falling oil prices and a slump in the regional economy have seen the prices fetched for waste plastic fall to virtually nothing, and street recyclers have stopped collecting it in the past few months.

“We have the capacity to process 40 tonnes per day, but now, we only receive just two or three tonnes,” said Jacky Lau Yiu-shing, director of the Recycled Materials and Reproduction Business General Association, whose organisation buys materials from recyclers for export.

Lau said because there was no money to be made, more plastic was destined for landfills.

Allowing recyclers to set targets on how much plastic to collect and offering funds to increase manpower would be more helpful, he said, since sorting recyclables is the most costly part of the whole operation.

“We welcome the fund … but the government may be trying to do a good thing only to produce a bad outcome,” Lau said. “You don’t need to help buy machinery that they already have.

“It would be better if the fund could subsidise frontline recyclers in collection and sorting.”

From a high of HK$6,500 per tonne, export prices for waste plastic have fallen by half to HK$3,200.

Processing costs, rent, wages and transport expenses continue to rise, and labour in the industry is drying up, recyclers say.

“Waste plastic would be priced at about HK$1 per kg, but now it’s dropped to zero,” said frontline recycler Leung Hing-fai, who owns a collection shop in Wan Chai.

Leung said he expected many recyclers to close in the near future as costs rise and margins for everything from waste paper to scrap metal get thinner.

“On a good month, I’m only making a profit of about HK$400 or HK$500,” he said. “I know a recycler who’s recently just quit and found a job as a minibus driver.”

Melonie Chau Yuet-cheung of Friends of the Earth said the situation on Hong Kong Island was worse due to the distance from processing plants in the New Territories.

“The government has not been addressing these problems,” she said.

Hong Kong’s recycling rate declined from 52 per cent in 2010 to 37 per cent in 2013. The amount of plastic recovered for recycling fell from 1,577 tonnes to 242 tonnes in the same period.

The Environmental Protection Department said purpose of the Recycling Fund was to help the industry improve their operational capability and efficiency. Recyclers will be allowed to apply for grants up to HK$5 million, while grants for non-profit organisations will be capped at HK$15 million.

To make it easier for small and medium sized businesses to embark on smaller-scale projects, a special “matching fund” with a ceiling of HK$150,000 will be provided.

“The industry can use a more convenient process to apply for assistance for standard projects like employee training, industry accreditation schemes and improving standards of occupational safety,” a spokesman said.

“The EPD will continue to monitor the latest market situation and maintain close contact with the industry to understand their needs.”