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Recycling the unrecyclable


Ming Yeung

As Hong Kong is lagging behind its neighbors in ridding its mounting waste, a Recycling Fund established to thwart an imminent waste crisis, stakeholders say, wouldn’t serve its purpose unless it’s put to good use. Ming Yeung writes.

The Hong Kong government has long realized that the city’s waste will soon have no final resting place, forcing it to kick start a Recycling Fund with a planned HK$1 billion injection to make it tick.

The government’s prolonged bid to expand the three existing landfills — at Tseung Kwan O, Ta Kwu Ling and Tuen Mun — and to build an incinerator at Shek Kwu Chau, north of Lantau Island at whatever costs has become snarled though, running into acrimonious public protests and debate.

The Environmental Protection Department (EPD) said the SAR recycled only 2.16 million tonnes of waste in 2012 — 860,000 tonnes less than the year before.

Of the total recycled figure, about 60 percent of the decline was said to be the result of a drastic drop in the trading of plastic waste, of which 320,000 tonnes were recycled in 2012, compared to 840,000 tonnes in 2011 and 1.58 million tonnes in 2010.

Lack of space

Up to 97 percent of locally-recovered recyclables were exported for further processing in 2012, so the local waste-recycling industry has been more or less limited to the primary phase of processing — recovery, baling and exporting.

The recycling industry, involving about 531 operators listed under the “Hong Kong Collector/Recycler Directory” with 6,000 employees, argues that the extremely low recycling rate is largely due to a lack of space and sky-high processing costs locally.

Jacky Lau Yiu-shing, chairman of the Hong Kong Recycle Materials & Reproduction Business General Association, said the public still lacks knowledge of separating recyclables and waste at source, making the sorting process extremely expensive.

“For instance, if sorting of plastics is well implemented at source, we recyclers can spend less money on it and the products can sell at higher prices,” Lau said, adding that good quality plastic materials could sell at HK$3,000-HK$4,000 per tonne.

The EPD promises that the government “will undertake multiple and concurrent action to drive behavioral change to reduce waste at source through policies and legislation, including municipal solid waste (MSW) charging and producer responsibility schemes”.

The department estimates the overall recycling rate is at 48 percent, but the recycling sector claims the figure is no higher than 30 percent.

Leung Pui-lun, who has operated a recycling company for decades, criticized the government for not subsidizing low-value waste, such as wooden planks, glass bottles and plastic stuff, making them undesirable for firms to recycle and, eventually, such junk is forced to end up at landfills.

“For a long time, government officials have still not acquired genuine and sufficient information on what the local recycling industry needs in the first place,” Leung said.

Taking Tuen Mun’s EcoPark as an example, he said the high threshold and costs of operating a plant there has deterred many small-and-medium size firms, making its occupation rate constantly at a very low level.

The 20-hectare EcoPark, developed in two phases, is a key project of the government’s waste management program that aims to promote the local recycling industry.

“The officials, after taking a study trip to Europe (in the 1990s), insisted on making EcoPark produce high-value-added products without considering the high cost of processing in town,” Leung explained. Since Hong Kong has transformed itself from a manufacturing to a service economy, recyclables could not be reproduced locally, and they have to be exported mostly to Guangdong Province and other parts of Asia.

Leung’s company is now being run by his son, Maverick Leung Chun-pong, who has transformed it from recycling to product destruction in recent years.

Leung Junior said that, due to advanced technology and transparent information on prices of recyclables, the recycling business nowadays is not as lucrative as that of previous generations.

The government established the Steering Committee to Promote the Sustainable Development of the Recycling Industry in August last year, headed by Chief Secretary for Administration Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor.

At the “Go Green, Waste Less” summit on April 11, Secretary for the Environment Wong Kam-sing said the HK$1 billion Recycling Fund is “to strengthen the operation of the recycling industry in Hong Kong in terms of quality and also quantity of their output”.

“The Steering Committee will study the specific uses of the Recycling Fund in-depth with a view to formulating effective, equitable and sustainable proposals.

“We expect to work out the detailed design of the Fund in the second half of this year for consultation with the Panel on Environmental Affairs of the Legislative Council,” the EPD spokesman added.

The new initiative will be executed on a project-based approach that provides a kind of matching fund for companies with a ceiling of HK$5 million and recycling industry trade associations with a ceiling of HK$10 million per project.

Maverick Leung, however, called the new scheme “a bit impracticable”. “If the department requires detailed proposals for applying for the fund, I would say it’s undesirable for small business like us. If they vet our proposals in a strict manner, most of the operators won’t benefit from it,” he said.

Direct subsidy urged

Stakeholders in the recycling sector called on the government to make good use of the funding, saying direct subsidy to companies that handle low-value recyclables would be more useful to dispose of the materials.

“After all, local recyclers need financial incentives to recycle less-valued materials so that they won’t lose money doing it,” Leung reckoned, adding that assistance should only be given to the handling of locally-collected waste to prevent recyclers from claiming the grant by importing waste from abroad.

Lack of space is another vital problem the industry has been facing. Leung said recycling plants need spaces ranging from 5,000 to 30,000 square feet to sort out and handle waste before they can be shipped to other destinations.

At the same time, the number of private waste-collection points has dwindled to almost zero due to soaring rents which have pushed up logistics operation costs.

Jacky Lau said financial assistance would help those recycling wood, glass bottles and plastics, none of which is cost-effective because of the bulky nature of the raw material.

He said the Recycling Fund should be spent wisely on frontline waste collectors and logistics workers. “Transportation fees can come up to HK$1,000 for just taking waste from downtown areas to the New Territories. If transportation is covered by the government, drivers can earn a few hundred bucks for each tonne of cargo, so they would have the motivation to do it. I expect the government to offer financial aid for two years at (the) most.”

Assistant Professor Chung Shan-shan of the Department of Biology at Hong Kong Baptist University agrees with Lau that funding should go to helping only low-profit making businesses which could not operate in a market-driven economy.

“The fund should be given strictly for handling locally-generated recyclables, otherwise some recyclers would make use of the money to process imported waste, and this would contradict with the government’s goal,” Chung said.

“Hong Kong’s waste management policy lags behind our motherland, not to mention other advanced economies. The mainland started subsidizing certain recyclables long ago until more businesses joined in and created competition to a point that they fight for doing it even without any financial assistance,” Lau stressed.

Prices for recyclables are prone to social changes and the global economic scene, Lau noted. “We rode out the 1998 financial crisis, the SARS epidemic in 2003 and the 2008 financial tsunami. I’m lucky to have got through all these,” he said.

Lau suggested that the government establish an ordinance to make the public and businesses aware of the heavy price they would have to pay for dumping recyclables onto landfills.

Chung warned that imposing a landfill duty is not a band-aid solution to the long-standing problem and could create resentment among the public. But it’s a good start by educating them to do better sorting of domestic waste at source.

Building a waste incinerator is inevitable to meet the long-term goal in waste management planning, she said.

“We have set a clear target to reduce the per capita disposal rate of municipal solid waste by 40 percent by 2022,” the EPD spokesman said.

“Without an incinerator, the government’s target to reduce waste by 40 percent by 2022 will forever be a target only,” Chung said.

“Organizations always pinpoint what the government has not done enough. Why don’t we propose useful suggestions and do it together?” she added.

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