How can Hongkongers pay less in waste charges? Just recycle

(5 April 2024 SCMP)

A trial period of the municipal solid waste-charging scheme started on April 1, with 14 locations across the city testing out the government’s plan for waste management and reduction. But before the trial period could begin and Hong Kong could gain valuable experience from it, some community opinion leaders were already suggesting August 1 would still not be the right time to fully roll out waste charging and calling for the scheme to be delayed yet again.

Will the waste-charging scheme be postponed for the third time?

By definition, a trial period is meant to demonstrate how things can work. The government is trying to show the community how the waste-charging scheme will work in settings ranging from housing estates and shopping centres to care homes.

We should not misread the government’s intentions and underestimate its commitment to implementing the scheme in full on August 1. As lessons are learned and data is shared from the trial period, it should be possible to launch the scheme efficiently and effectively in the community at large.

There have also been suggestions that if the trial hits a rough patch, the government should reconsider the plan to launch the waste-charging scheme in August, and perhaps put it off until the city has adequate recycling facilities.

But the fact of the matter is that we may not see a perfect recycling system in Hong Kong for another decade. Consider how the recycling system has interacted with recycling behaviour in places that already implement waste-charging. In South Korea, where prepaid garbage bags were adopted across the country in 1995, the economic benefits gained by the recycling industry grew from HK$1.7 billion in 2001 to HK$7 billion in 2009.

In Taiwan, Taipei and other cities have charged for waste disposal by the bag since 2000. Although cases of illegal dumping are still reported in the local news, waste charging and other measures have had a huge impact on waste generation and led to a dramatic increase in the recycling rate.

In Hong Kong, The Green Earth has been preparing the community for the waste-charging scheme by conducting dozens of educational activities for companies, schools, community centres and government departments since September last year. Undoubtedly, participants had concerns when they could not get hold of needed information on the waste-charging scheme from the authorities. However, many felt relieved and have become more accepting of the scheme following the activities, where they learned practical ways to reduce waste in their daily lives and thus save the money that would otherwise have to be spent on buying designated garbage bags.

Waste reduction at source has long been the prime objective of the waste-charging scheme, which the government has mulled over since as far back as 2013. Predicting the failure of the scheme before its launch is rash.

To further understand the challenges that might be faced across the city, The Green Earth sent a team to a community centre in Ngau Tau Kok to conduct an audit of the daily waste it generates. After all the waste from the offices and interest classes on all four storeys of the centre was accounted for, the amount of waste that had to be disposed in designated bags could be reduced from 125 litres to 50 litres, by sorting most of it for recycling. In other words, 60 per cent less waste was bound for landfill sites, after the jumble of rubbish was sorted through.

The audit has provided this community centre with a clear picture of how much it has to pay, in comparison with how much money it can save through waste minimisation and recycling when the waste-charging scheme kicks in. The government should also inform the public regularly of such findings from the trial period to boost confidence in the scheme.

At The Green Earth, we are fans of the “polluter pays” principle. We will invite schools, grass-roots groups and companies to let us conduct waste audits to help them to understand how they can cut waste disposal costs by sorting rubbish for recycling.

To get ready, I urge everyone in Hong Kong to do a waste audit to have a better sense of how much money has to be spent, or can be saved, on waste disposal. Issues, if any, should be addressed by the government in the six-month phasing-in period.

There will no doubt be questions here and there once the scheme takes effect, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating. The two keys to the success of waste charging are public education on waste reduction at source and the continuous improvement of the city’s recycling facilities.

Rico Wong, Deputy director, The Green Earth

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