A Load of Rubbish

Environment Minister Edward Yau is one of the nicer members of Donald Tsang's cabinet but he is now learning a painful truth the hard way. You can get away with avoiding tough choices for a quite a long period of time, but eventually reality catches up with you. And then you've got trouble as all the past neglect - whether your own or that of your predecessors, most likely both - comes back to haunt you.

For many years - some would say decades - we have known two things about our waste disposal policy: we throw away far too much because we don't recycle nearly enough; and the method we have chosen for getting rid of what can't be recycled is simply unsustainable. We know as a community what we need to do about both of these things, but we haven't done any of them because they require us to choose between several unpopular options.

For a Government obsessed with short term thinking, whose main policy aim seems to be to avoid negative headlines in tomorrow's newspapers, making such choices is something to be deferred at all costs, preferably indefinitely.

Let's start with recycling. Our efforts in this area have been pretty pathetic. Only after many years have we devised a system for recycling most paper. And finally, after repeated deferrals and much anguish, we introduced a small plastic bag levy. But where are we on electronic waste? What about bottles and cans? A refundable deposit of $10 on every bottle purchased from the supermarket would eliminate this form of waste overnight, similarly a refundable $1 surcharge on every can.

The downstream arrangements would also require some creative policy making - maybe, horror of horrors, provision of free land so that social enterprises could break even with the recycling operations. But isn't that why we have ministers and a cabinet in the first place?

Of all the possible methods of disposing of the residual waste, surely the daftest is to fill up pristine valleys in the New Territories and then wonder what happened to all our beautiful countryside.

There are alternatives. Modern high temperature incinerators are now available that can safely reduce waste to an absolute minimum (even the resulting ash can be put to good use) and generate electricity in the process. Some models would even be able to cope with existing current volumes and already dumped rubbish. What a prospect that would be - gradually restoring ruined valleys to their original natural condition.

Winning public support for such facilities, and LegCo support for the financial implications, would not be easy because they will not be popular and they are expensive. But is there any evidence that we have even tried? Where is the serious, measured public debate led by a minister with credibility presenting a coherent overview? Perhaps if there is one good thing the Tseung Kwan O debacle can bring us it would be to launch such a debate.

Reference to TKO brings me to the soap opera of the past few weeks. First we hear that extension of the present dump site is urgent, cannot be deferred, and there are no alternatives. Then we hear that even the Chief Executive, let alone LegCo, does not have the legal power to stay his own order. Then we hear that the order can be deferred, and LegCo gets legal advice that it can rescind it. Then the question on everyone's lips is whether the Government will need to seek a Judicial Review. Even if the Administration were correct and its legal advice were to prevail, nobody has yet explained how this would oblige LegCo - a thoroughly fed up assembly by this point, one imagines - to approve the financial implications of the extension. What a comedy of errors.

And how unfair for some officials to accuse the TKO residents of NIMBY-ism when their whole back yard is a refuse dump.

This is surely the time for a pause and some calm thinking about long term solutions, not band aid quick fixes.

Let's get our policy on recycling sorted out and put some muscle into implementing it. And get a sustainable disposal policy up there in lights so we all know what we have to do.

Meanwhile all we have might handily be described as a load of rubbish.