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Rocket science of solution to waste problem entails melding of minds

SCMP -14 April 2012

Edwin Lau Che-feng of Friends of the Earth (“Costly incinerator will be a waste of money”, April 2), suggests that dealing with our waste problem is not rocket science. If it were that easy, a solution would be in place by now.

The numbers are well known and mostly undisputed: 18,000 tonnes of municipal solid waste per day; half separated at source equals 9,000 tonnes per day. The methods to deal with waste are not rocket science – reduce, reuse, recycle and dispose.

The prevailing method of disposal in Hong Kong is landfilling. One crucial element to consider is the fact that landfilling cannot continue indefinitely. Hong Kong is running out of space. Then what? Throw the waste into the harbour, or ship it to the mainland? These would obviously not be workable solutions.

Hong Kong has an appalling record of more than 2.5kg of waste production per capita per day. Germany produces, in comparison, less than 1kg.

There is clearly room for improvement, and a waste charging system would help to achieve this. With a waste separation rate of more than 50 per cent, Hong Kong is not doing badly, but again, there is room for improvement. Germany recovers 70 per cent of its waste. Such a rate cannot be achieved without legislation, incentives and education, which are lacking in Hong Kong.

Residual waste in Germany and elsewhere is incinerated. This is a proven, tested and safe technology, which reduces carbon dioxide emissions by recovering energy from waste.

If Hong Kong were to reduce its per capita waste to 1kg per day and recovered 70 per cent of that waste, a total of 2,100 tonnes of municipal solid waste per day would be left. This number is not utopian but realistically could not be achieved before our landfills reached saturation.

The debate among multitudes of interest groups and stakeholders offers some solutions, although most simply say “no” or “yes, but”. This is where the rocket science begins: getting dozens of parties to agree on a workable solution seems a formidable task.

Such agreement can obviously only be reached if, first, representatives are willing to compromise; second, there is an understanding, that all options for waste treatment have to be considered; and, third, if all acknowledge that there cannot be any achievement without sacrifice.

The way forward, therefore, has to be one of convergence among all parties involved. There is a long way to go, and if you want to go far, go together.

Wolfgang Ehmann, Admiralty

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