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How education can change people’s attitudes about waste disposal

04 November, 2014

Edwin Lau

The Council for Sustainable Development is heading in the right direction with plans to charge according to the amount of waste each household disposes of. This will be the best incentive to drive down waste generation. However, the council and the Environment Bureau seem to worry about whether people will act properly and not dump their waste in public areas when legislation is in place.

They seem to have forgotten how effective a tool education can be – more effective than policing – in changing attitudes about social and environmental issues. Some think education takes a long time to achieve results. It really depends on the approach. Government propaganda on TV won’t work; constant public engagement and provision of convenient recycling facilities will.

Two recent success stories show how Hong Kong people can change their attitudes about the environment once they have a better understanding of the problems and the eco-friendly options available.

Case one is our four-week trial in a private residential building to educate tenants on what to do in a waste charging simulation exercise. We worked with the group Greener Action to educate tenants and set up systems to separate items for recycling before putting the remaining waste into designated bags every evening and recording their weight. Some 90 per cent of tenants took part; the amount of waste for disposal was cut by up to 30 per cent.

The second success is our food waste recycling trial in public housing. To get tenants to reduce waste seems mission impossible in the minds of senior government officials, who believe only regulations can make tenants act.

We approached the estate management to inform them of our waste crisis, and took them to visit – and smell – our landfills and food waste recycling plants, and encouraged interaction with our trained staff and volunteers to motivate them to act.

Senior officials found it amazing that, after our education processes, housewives, the elderly and young parents alike put their food waste into a small bucket, and brought it downstairs every evening to pour into a special bin for a food waste recycler to take away. In a year, around 250 tonnes were collected from over 940 households.

In Taipei city, the government organised more than 300 meetings to educate and motivate citizens to turn a once-unwelcome policy into a habit for most citizens. Such habits have helped bring down the waste disposal amount by 60 per cent since the introduction of waste charging in 2000.

Recently, an international insurance company asked whether other plastic items, besides bottles, could be put in recycling bins for plastic. The public may generally be more environmentally aware these days, but many still do not fully understand the simple steps to go green. Education can help.

Of course, we need the government to establish the green “hardware” to treat our waste to extend the life of our landfills. But what we badly need is waste charging legislation coupled with public education. That will motivate everyone to cut waste, reuse and recycle in order to pay as little as possible. Education does not require spending billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money.

The Council for Sustainable Development is due to submit its recommendations to the Environment Bureau soon, and it proposes to allow certain types of buildings to begin with a less effective scheme (charging based on the amount of waste per building) if they cannot immediately adopt the mode of waste charging per tenant. There may be a need for such arrangements but, within a year or two, the whole city should have adopted the best method to cut our waste as much as possible to tackle this crisis.

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