Go to an interview at the Environment Bureau with the campaigner Carol Ho and you come out with a mixed bag. The Bureau deserves thumbs down for failing to monitor the non-performance of its recycling contractor and thumbs up for its plan to introduce this year community waste fees that will change behaviour benefiting Hong Kong and indeed the planet.
We interviewed Under-secretary for the Environment Tse Chin-wan (CW) and EPD Assistant Director Wong Hon-meng (HM) at the Tamar Government HQ. This has been described as “The Palace of Vanities” so we expected opulence. We didn’t see any. The canteen is bog-awful and CW’s office smaller than anticipated and austere.
The subject was recycling. Brickbats and bouquets appear to be in order:
— BRICKBAT: The contractor Baguio is being paid by the Government to collect recyclables from the coloured bins once a week. There are 2700 such bins at public places across Hong Kong such as road sides, Assistant Director HM said. We said that Baguio’s garden-watering trucks are often sighted in Sai Kung but recyclable collection trucks are never seen. Anywhere. Ever. Under-secretary CW said, “Let us look into it.” We said the officials were not doing their job if they didn’t monitor the contractors and asked HM how long Baguio had held this contract. He said two years. Who had the contract before that? HM said the contract was managed by another department and he would have to check. We said 2700 coloured bins for an economy as large as Hong Kong did not seem like anywhere near enough. The number will soon go up to 4000, HM said. More on recycling below, but let’s cut to the good stuff…
— BOUQUET, BIG BOUQUET! The Environment Bureau will shortly announce that it plans to introduce this year “a municipal waste charging scheme”. You will have to pay for bags for your household waste that will be the only ones allowed to be collected. CW said the aim is to change behaviour by hitting people in the pocket. You will be able to lower your home costs by not generating so much waste in the first place, by leaving packaging in the supermarket and by taking recyclables to collection points. The scheme will affect the entire economy: restaurants, schools, offices, factories, institutions — everyone will be paying these fees and thus changing their behaviour for the better. CW said they recognise it is going to be hard for the Government to get this through. Idiot Legislative Councillors (our words) who will oppose the Government on anything no matter how beneficial for Hong Kong and the planet will try to stop it. CW said they hope people who can see the value of this scheme will campaign in its support.
Recycling and waste reduction are complex and the conversation rambled, but if you see the importance of these matters stick with us…
We started out by tabling the SAI KUNG BUZZ report on recycling at the University of Science and Technology. Its specialist Sustainability Unit (SU) is able to get less than 10 per cent of the university’s waste recycled. The industrial base in Hong Kong is just not there to accept the refuse, the SU’s head David Bookhart told BUZZ. CW and HM said without the details they couldn’t comment.
On recycling in general, CW said about 35 per cent of Hong Kong’s waste is now being recycled, mostly in China and SE Asia. The 2700 coloured bins on the streets are only a part of the story. There are also over 7000 recycling bins placed in residential estates, commercial and industrial buildings to encourage recycling, which are not operated by Food and Environmental Hygiene Department’s contractor. HM also explained that recyclables collected by these bins are only a small portion of the total amount. Most of the recyclables are being collected by recyclers directly from the sources. The Government is examining more means to monitor the recyclable collection service such as using GPS.
“Our big issues here, what we see as serious problems are things that go into the sea and waste reduction,” CW said. Several government departments are involved in cleaning the sea and beaches. A working group set up to coordinate the cleaning is examining measures to step up the protection of ecologically important areas, e.g beaches where turtles lay eggs. Another working group joint with the mainland will establish systems for predicting waste accumulation, eg after heavy rain.
What it is all about
To reduce plastic bottle use, water dispensers have been set up on some beaches. Country parks will follow.
“Producer responsibility schemes” are planned for various sectors. There is one in place already for electrical products. When you buy a computer, for example, you pay a fee for its later recycling. When the computer has finished its useful life you call a contractor who takes it away free. Levies on glass bottles are planned to be introduced next year. The manufacturer or a collector will take them away for recycling. The Bureau is examining the case for similar levies on plastic bottles, but has set no timetable yet. Then CW moved on to the “municipal waste charging scheme” described above. When we understood this we showed our appreciation by shaking their hands. Asked how much households will be required to pay for different size bags, CW said, the Secretary for the Environment will announce this shortly.
We asked what instructions new Chief Executive Carrie Lam has given the Bureau in her few months in office. CW said her policy address included central collection of plastic bottles, outreach teams educating the public on waste reduction and a new unit to concentrate on food waste.
Then there’s the $1 billion recycling fund. HM said in the past two years it has spent $80 million on supporting recycling companies in developing their plant. A significant development, too, is Eco-park at Tuen Mun. It is a 20-hectare plot of land devoted to the recycling industry. Firms that have already set up there are recycling cooking oils, waste food, glass bottles, waste wood and electrical products. The officials also help recycling firms find short-term lease sites that are cheap, while assisting them in reducing costs for the likes of workers’ insurance.