Recycling ideas for next CE

Edwin Lau says the next chief executive should build on our more effective waste management measures and support the recycling industry.

Outgoing Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s decision to explore mandatory producer responsibility schemes for plastic containers and to introduce a legislative proposal for waste charging is to be welcomed. With his term ending, it is also worth reviewing his administration’s performance in waste management.

According to the latest data, Hong Kong’s food waste has decreased by 7.1 per cent since 2014. For this, we should thank the work of Environment Minister Wong Kam-sing and the Food Wise Hong Kong campaign that was launched in 2012.

However, nearly all other types of waste have increased. Municipal solid waste increased by 9.5 per cent from 9,278 tonnes per day in 2012 to 10,159 tonnes per day in 2015. The average daily disposal rate has climbed to 1.39kg – the highest in the past 10 years.

Plastic waste being dumped in landfills – which accounts for about a fifth of our municipal solid waste – has also increased, by nearly 20 per cent, from 666,490 tonnes in 2012 to 796,795 tonnes in 2015.

Disappointingly, the amount of plastics being recycled has dropped massively in the same period, from 317,000 tonnes in 2012 to only 94,000 tonnes in 2015.

The government should try and reduce all waste, whether or not it ends up in a landfill. At present, it pays contractors to bury waste in landfills but gives no recognition, much less payment, to the private recycling companies that spend time and money to separate recyclables from mixed waste.

Recyclers, like any other business, have to make a profit to survive. So they cannot afford to collect recyclables that are commercially unprofitable. Given our limited landfill space, it would make sense for the government to pay a fee to encourage recyclers to collect low-value recyclables and prevent them from entering the landfills. This would have the effect of reducing payment to landfill contractors, which would have less to collect. This would encourage better use of resources.

Such a fee need not be borne by the government in the long run and could be shouldered by waste producers, as more producer responsibility schemes are introduced and the waste charging law takes effect. In addition, to avoid overspending, our government should not pay more to recyclers than it pays the landfill contractors per tonne of waste.

If the next administration takes up these measures, I believe we will see reductions in our waste disposal rates and increases in our recycling rates, which would be good for both government finances and the environment. I cannot find a reason not to act.

Edwin Lau Che-feng is executive director of The Green Earth.

8 February 2017 SCMP