Solid Waste

Hong Kong may now be past the point of no return with respect to the introduction of its new solid waste charging scheme for domestic refuse. But are we ready?

The Municipal Solid Waste Charging Scheme (as the plan is formally known) had been due to start on 1 April this year, but the launch was delayed for four months to allow time for a trial run and some further fine-tuning. Under the scheme, everything that is not being recycled has to be disposed of in specially designated bags. These come in nine different sizes which householders must purchase in advance. The underlying philosophy is that this process will minimise waste disposal by encouraging recycling.

The imminence of the start date has forced me to really focus on the subject for the first time, and brought home the extent of things I do not know. So I have questions, but I also have some suggestions of how they might best be answered.

Start with recycling. We are a major newspaper consuming household (three Chinese and four English per day, plus some weekly magazines). Up to now we have put all the discards into white plastic bags and arranged for them to be taken down to the rubbish collection area on the ground floor, from where they disappear smoothly, presumably to be recycled. Unless otherwise directed I intend to continue to use ordinary bags in this process. Can someone confirm recyclers are able to deal with colour supplements and magazines as well as ordinary newspapers?

Glass bottles are another big item for us. They disappear from the refuse area readily enough, but should we be separating bottles made from clear glass from those made from the tinted variety? How thoroughly do we need to wash them out first?

I have a similar raft of questions about plastic items, discarded ordinary paper, cardboard, clothes, shoes, batteries, books, aluminum cans, and other metal objects. No doubt other areas of ignorance will emerge as the exercise gets under way.

The situation with respect to food waste is likely to prove complex to resolve: paradoxically it is only worth collecting in quantities large enough to be economically viable. So clusters of restaurants will be ok and perhaps very large residential complexes. But where does that leave smaller blocks of flats, let alone single dwellings?

My suggestion is to launch an intensive public education programme between now and the end of July on every aspect of disposal. Each week the government should select a product category from the list quoted earlier and prepare an API for broadcast each evening in the five minutes before the main news bulletin. This would give advice on whether and how those products can be legally disposed of including recycling options. A hotline number would collect queries from the public, which could be answered in a round-up programme at the end of the week. On-site tours should be arranged for all residents – by management companies, owners corporations or home affairs personnel (perhaps supported by the district councilors?) so that everyone in a given area is familiar with recycling/disposal options in the vicinity of their own home.

Devising, launching and implementing such an exercise will require a huge effort from all sides.

There are widely different views on whether now is the right time to press ahead with the waste charging scheme. The “press on” view was well expressed in a strongly worded letter to the editor of this newspaper published recently under the headline “Baseless criticism of waste-charging scheme is unhelpful”. The author points out (correctly) that the scheme has been in the making for more than two decades and is in line with mainland policy. The point might also have been made that other cities in the region, such as Taipei, have successfully adopted similar schemes.

The argument for a different approach was recently set out in the China Daily by Lingnan University luminary Ho Lok-sang. Ho accepts that the situation is serious and urgent action is required, but queries whether a charge per household would be more practicable. I think it is too late to change horses, especially mid-stream.

There are going to be some interesting post-implementation implications. People are always writing to me on an unsolicited basis to offer expensive wine or the opportunity to purchase overseas properties. Local tradesmen push letters into the box to offer plumbing or electrical services, or tune up the air conditioners ready for summer. Periodically, the government, political parties and district councilors also write. Since I will in future have to pay for disposal of the correspondence and the envelope in which it came, will there be a convenient system to opt out of some or all of the flows?

But these are issues for another day. The immediate question is whether we now go ahead on the (revised) scheduled date. To delay again after one high-profile postponement would make the government look indecisive. And waiting for all preparation to be perfect is a recipe for paralysis. So I am inclined to think the government will go ahead on 1 August but those involved would do well to put in some hard work before the magic day, and be prepared to move quickly as and when any problems arise during implementation.

If there are lingering doubts as the deadline draws near, one possible answer would be to buy a little extra time by issuing the bags free to households for the first few months to give people an opportunity to adjust their behaviour.