Waste charging delay: how Hong Kong can make it count

Workers take household waste to the Luard Road Refuse Collection Point in Wan Chai on January 19. Photo: Yik Yeung-man

One of Hong Kong’s most heated debates of late has been about the delay, once again, of the plan to charge residents for waste disposal, which was due to start on April 1, but will now largely take effect from August 1. As the scheme will apply to every household and business in the city, it has attracted much attention.

Waste charging policies have been implemented worldwide and people are never thrilled to have to pay. But that does not mean society should not support Hong Kong’s waste charging scheme – which is badly needed.

The repeated delays to the scheme are undesirable. But, faced with escalating public pressure because of many unresolved issues with the scheme, the authorities had to push it back to calm sentiment.

It has been almost 30 months since the scheme was passed by the Legislative Council. All the preparation work should have been completed, including public briefings and promotions to develop a reasonable level of understanding among residents, with any queries, whether raised through radio phone-in programmes or at public briefing sessions, settled.

Unfortunately, that is not the case. One radio listener recently phoned in to say that she usually disposed of her takeaway food and drink containers in a little plastic bag, and that when the waste charges take effect, she would have to wrap this in a designated bag, a double bagging that she considered more environmentally unfriendly.

This view, in a way, reflects the level of environmental awareness of some Hongkongers. It leads to deeper questions around why we have yet to stop using disposable food containers or switched to reusables for takeaways. If we had done so, there would be no problem over the disposal of single-use tableware – which so many Hongkongers seem addicted to.

Why can’t we look at the coming waste charging scheme positively, and make use of the delay as an opportunity to improve the city’s waste management facilities, such as expanding the recycling network?

Last week, Secretary for Environment and Ecology Tse Chin-wan addressed 12 common questions on the waste charging scheme in his blog. One question was about what people could do so they spent less on the designated waste bags. Tse’s answer was for people to separate recyclables such as paper and plastic, and even food waste from their rubbish, and drop them into recycling bins in residential estates or at community recycling stations.

The authorities should have better knowledge and strategies when it comes to tackling our waste problem. Tse’s answer was geared towards recycling, a late-stage solution, when he should have been pushing for the public to reduce or stop buying single-use products or those with excessive packaging.

The authorities often refer to the waste management “hierarchy” in official documents that guide policies. This hierarchy prioritises waste avoidance and reduction over recycling. But this important message seems to be mere rhetoric, rather than being promoted and put into practice. No wonder the city’s waste problem is getting worse.

Since the beginning of the year, many concerns have been raised, notably by the property management industry. Sadly, many have said that, when it comes to non-compliant waste bags, they intend to take the easier, non-confrontational approach of wrapping these in the large designated bags for legal disposal.

I urge them not to do so as it would defeat the objective of the waste charging scheme. It would be utterly unfair on those who follow the rules and use the designated bags; the extra cost incurred by the property management companies will inevitably be passed on to all residents.

Moreover, this would be a never-ending challenge. Once people see there are no consequences for those who ignore the scheme, they may well follow suit. There will then be more non-compliant waste bags that require more large designated bags to cope with the situation.

Cleaners have the least bargaining power in this equation and I can see them having to work harder and longer hours once the scheme kicks in. I strongly urge Hongkongers to show their consideration for these workers by supporting the scheme and using the designated waste bags, while doing their best to avoid generating waste in the first place.

To minimise hiccups once the scheme kicks in, it is vital that the environmental authorities strengthen communication with the public, and offer meaningful support to the most vulnerable people and businesses.

An SCMP article contributed by Mr Edwin Lau,

Founder & Executive Director of The Green Earth

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