Edwin Lau believes the incoming waste charge will encourage residents and businesses to find ways to recycle and reuse – and offers some practical tips on how to do it.
Secretary for the Environment Wong Kam-sing has finally unveiled the proposal for waste charging legislation and will present it to the Legislative Council soon.
The proposal, which will affect all households and businesses, has met with mixed opinions. Most critics believe Hong Kong people will dump their garbage illegally to avoid the waste charge, creating other problems. Some also stressed the difficulty in enforcing such a law.
Certainly, enforcement will be no easy task. But I believe most people will not risk the non-compliance penalty of HK$1,500 when the daily garbage fee for a household of three is only around HK$1.10 to HK$1.70.
In fact, the waste charge is more likely to encourage households and businesses to develop creative and practical means for slashing our waste generation. To echo the government slogan, “Dump Less, Save More”.
Financial incentives usually bring about behavioural change more quickly than education. This is demonstrated by the introduction of the plastic bag levy in 2009; even a small charge of 50 cents per bag has been enough to swiftly persuade Hongkongers to bring their own shopping bags.
Hong Kong people like to show others that if we set ourselves a goal, we will strive to achieve it, despite the difficulties. On the matter of waste management, however, our neighbouring cities such as Taipei and Seoul are already ahead of us, having reduced their waste disposal by over 30 per cent with similar legislation.
There is no shortage of ways to avoid waste generation.
For instance, restaurants generate lots of food waste at traditional Chinese banquets. The main reason is that such banquets typically offer 10 or more dishes, so it is almost impossible to consume them all. Cutting down on the number of dishes would immediately help restaurants to save money on food purchases and waste charges.
Fast-food restaurants that have been using disposable cutlery should take this opportunity to overhaul their operations by serving customers with reusable cutlery, as this will help reduce their bill for waste disposal and change their eco-unfriendly image.
The excessive use of food packaging (plastic film and foam) in supermarkets creates a lot of waste that is inevitably added to the waste load of households. For instance, packaging for fruits such as bananas is simply unnecessary and should be minimised.
Our government should make use of the next two years, before the law takes effect in 2019, to enhance the recycling facilities of residential and commercial buildings, and this will calm the opposing voices. When recyclables are separated well at source without contamination, the value of recyclables will rise and this in turn can prevent cleaners from discarding recyclables (which is known to have happened).
The government should also devote more resources to public education, to help people understand our waste crisis, as well as the easy steps every citizen can take to avoid and reduce waste generation.
In a workshop to analyse waste composition held many years ago, I opened many bags of daily household garbage contributed by families. When recyclable items were removed, the volume was reduced by around 30 to 40 per cent. The remaining things in the bag were mainly food and packaging waste that cannot be recycled.
Having engaged people from different sectors in environmental education for decades, I hold a positive view about the waste charging legislation. When people are given the full picture of the city’s waste challenges, including the effects on human health, their mindsets will change.
Edwin Lau Che-feng is executive director of The Green Earth.
30 March 2017 SCMP