Time has come to throw out wasteful habits
An ambitious plan is in place to change the habits of the entire city and increase the range of material that can be collected for recycling
14 August 2007
South China Morning Post
The battle to change Hong Kong's wasteful habits is on in earnest and the Environmental Protection Department's ambitious goals for waste reduction underscore the urgency the government has placed on preventing a potential crisis in a city overloaded with its own garbage.
At the forefront of efforts to clean up Hong Kong's act is the EPD's principal environmental protection officer Lawrence Wong, who knows more than most about the problems our excessively wasteful habits are causing.
Dr Wong joined the EPD in the early 1990s and has been involved in virtually every aspect of waste management, from legislation to policy development, enforcement control and waste reduction. "Back in the early 1990s, we spent most of our time building waste disposal facilities, but that's not sustainable. We can't continue to build and dispose," he warned.
In December 2005, the department put together a policy framework document on the way forward for waste management for the 10 years from 2005 to 2014.
"It encompasses everything from waste reduction, re-use, recycling, to providing incentives for people to put the ideas into practice, public education, and how government can take the lead with procurement, support and technology," Dr Wong said.
One of the weapons within this arsenal is the so-called "source separation" of waste - an ambitious plan which provides recycling facilities as close as possible to the home, while broadening the range of recyclables that can be recovered beyond the now familiar "three-bin" collection points for paper, plastic bottles and aluminium cans.
The onus is on residents to divide their daily waste into the appropriate categories - from old clothing to electronic appliances, batteries, old computer equipment, old cookware, CDs and so on - for recycling at the designated refuse facility in their estate. Collectors will pay for the recyclables.
The EPD wants 80 per cent of Hong Kong's population participating in source separation by 2010.
"It's quite a task, and we also have yearly goals to attain," Mr Wong said. "We are using the number of housing estates to measure the population equivalent, so 80 per cent translates into a target of 1,360 housing estates participating by 2010.
"I can say that up until now, we're right on track. In 2005, we wanted to recruit 180 estates and we ended up with 225. Last year we wanted 400 and we recruited 497.
"By the end of this year we wanted 700 estates participating, and right now, as at the end of July, we have 650 - that's around 36 per cent of the population with the facilities in place to serve them.
"But of course what we need to do is ensure that this 36 per cent is actually participating - that's a different story."
As Dr Wong admitted, the participation rate was increasing, but was still not high - in some estates just 20 per cent of the residents. Changing people's habits was the task ahead.
"This is our focus in the coming years so by the time we get 80 per cent of the people with the available facilities, we also have the majority on board with the concept as part of their daily lives."
Dr Wong said the EPD faced three major hurdles with the programme.
First, it must ensure all the stakeholders of a housing estate adopting the programme are on board and in consensus, from property managers to cleaning companies, waste collectors and of course the residents. Second, the building's physical dimensions must be considered. Some easily accommodate waste facilities, while others do not.
The EPD has produced a guidebook with different estate models to help individual buildings find the model that would best suit their building.
The final hurdle is cost, and with renovations in some cases necessary there can be considerable expense. To address this the EPD has made funds available through the Environment Conservation Fund to cover up to 50 per cent of the total costs.
The EPD is also considering options on charges for disposal of waste for estates that do not adopt source separation. These options are now being prepared for public discussion later this year.
Dr Wong explained that as estates realised source separation could actually raise money and improve living environments, the reluctance would hopefully dissipate.
The road ahead would be difficult, as Dr Wong anticipated the last estates to come on board would be the most difficult to persuade to make the green changes. Ongoing publicity and awareness campaigns and an annual award scheme recognising the best estates as models for the city are part of the strategy.
Progress is being made. Although the total waste generated since 2000 is still increasing, the EPD has also recorded an increasing trend of waste recovery - and domestic waste disposal is decreasing.
Commercial and industrial waste, however, is increasing.
"It's not so much on the industrial side though," Dr Wong said. "The problem is commercial food waste - leftover food waste is the main source of waste in this area."
The EPD wants to recover - or recycle - 50 per cent of our total solid waste by 2014.
"We will always need landfill, but by taking all these measures, we will have a system that performs the best for Hong Kong's environment in the most cost-effective manner.
"To me there is no simple single solution, and at the end of the day we simply cannot rely on reduction and recycling alone as the only tool in managing our waste."