OUT OF SIGHT, OUT OF RUBBISH?
Thanks to the efficient municipal services of the Hong Kong government, we don’t have to worry about where our everyday trash ends up. It was not until the enormous controversy over the landfill expansion and incinerator construction plans unveiled by the government, did the issue of waste leap into the political arena. Members of the public then realized the impact of the waste they have been generating all along. With the Legislative Council passing the government’s plans, the controversy has waned and we are going about our old throwaway ways and its business as usual.
The waste crisis has long existed in Hong Kong. The government decided to cease operations of the 3 incineration plants and 13 small landfills across Hong Kong in 1989; and the mega-landfills in Tuen Mun, Ta Kwu Ling and Tseung Kwan O took over in the 1990s. The new landfills were originally estimated to be filled by 2020. However, waste volumes had been expanding at such extreme growth rates that in the early 2000s, the government made the early warning that the landfills would be full 5 years earlier than anticipated.
There is a common saying in Hong Kong that ‘each square foot of land is the equivalent of an ounce of gold’. The scarcity of land makes spaces for disposing waste a real luxury. The stench also severely affects the surrounding residents. The Shek Kwu Chau incinerator anticipates to be opened in 2022 with a capacity of 3000 tonnes municipal solid waste (i.e. other than construction waste and special waste) a day, which is equivalent to 1/3 of the municipal solid waste received per day in the current landfills. The government hopes the incinerator would help relieve pressure on the landfills and in the long term to achieve zero landfill of municipal solid waste.
However, if we keep generating trash at such an uncontrolled rate, it would not matter what the capacity of the incinerators are. The Hong Kong population has increased by 36% over the past 30 years while the municipal solid waste generated has increased by 80%. On average each person has produced 30% more garbage!
Waste reduction is not rocket science, one just has to reduce, reuse and recycle. Yet, is it easier said than done in this wasteful society? To keep up with the latest fashion trends, people discard nice and clean clothes for new collections. To make life more convenient, people prefer buying new home appliances and furniture than getting the broken ones repaired. People are not bothered to sort through garbage even though the recycling bins are just nearby. To address the root cause of the problem, everyone must change their wasteful habits.
In addition, the business community also has to take responsibility as well. Would they put more thought into the manufacturing process by minimizing material consumption or giving priority considerations for secondary materials? Would electrical, electronic manufacturers and distributors offer better after service to make it easier for customers to have faulty products repaired? Would supermarket and food service groups donate the unsold but still edible food to community organizations, both helping people in need and reducing food waste in landfills?
In possession of public powers, the government is in an irreplaceable role. In 2005, the SAR government issued a policy framework for the management of municipal solid waste, which recommended a series of waste reduction policies, such as to implement waste charging, to establish producer responsibility schemes for packaging materials, beverage containers, plastic bags, tyres, electrical and electronic appliances, batteries, etc and to ban wastes having recycling channels to be disposed to the landfills. Unfortunately, the implementation progress has been extraordinary slow. Until now, only the plastic bag tax has been levied along the long listed responsibility schemes on the framework. In 2010, the government completed the consultation on electrical and electronic equipment and then put forward legislation proposals after 5 years. In 2013, the consultation on beverage containers only included glass bottles. A quantity-based waste charging policy has been discussed for nearly a decade and had undergone 2 rounds of public consultation. Yet, the authorities have yet to explain how it would be implemented. In addition, Hong Kong still does not have a comprehensive policy to promote the development of the local recycling industry.
Our excessive consumption of limited resources on Earth will kill off the sustainable living environment. The issue of waste is mainly dealt with at a sanitation level in Hong Kong. Members of the public are content as long as the waste is kept o the streets. There has to be a complete mindset change prompting questions as to where the waste goes and to remind everyone to take into account the legacy left for the next generation.