Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Waste management policy will take time

Article by Ken Davies in China Daily, Hong Kong edition on December 4, 2013

Editor's note: This is the first of a series of articles exploring policies to address Hong Kong's waste management challenges.

People in Hong Kong are impatient with the government’s policy on waste management.

This, as Christine Loh, Under Secretary for the Environment recently explained to me, is because they expect everything to happen at once, while the various initiatives taken by the government will take time to implement.

She compares Hong Kong’s experience with those of its developed-economy neighbors, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, which are well ahead – even of Europe – in recycling and other waste disposal methods. By contrast, Hong Kong, she says, in earlier decades only used landfill, so it is now striving hard to catch up.

The result is a multi-faceted endeavor by Hong Kong to tackle waste of all kinds, using the most practical methods available, whether traditional or innovative high-tech. Some HK$39 billion (almost US$4 billion) is being spent on building waste-handling infrastructure up to 2021. Some efforts are already bearing fruit, others, like the proposed incinerator, will take several years to construct and put into operation.

As well as disposing of waste by landfill expansion and incineration, waste is to be reduced at source, and various forms of recycling are to be added to those that already exist as part of a modern strategy of treating waste as a resource, rather than merely as matter to dispose of.

Experience is being shared: for instance, our officials visited Seoul earlier this year to learn from what the city is doing to reduce and recycle waste, and delegations come here from Chinese mainland cities to learn from Hong Kong.

The next article will look at these waste management initiatives in Hong Kong in more detail. Here we will first see what is being done in similar economies in East Asia.

All industrializing economies have experienced environmental disasters, often linked to careless waste disposal. When these have proved particularly bad, governments have taken measures to prevent their recurrence.

Living standards in Japan, Taiwan and South Korea have risen tremendously since the Second World War, as of course they have also done in Hong Kong. The growth of industry and consumerism has generated increasing quantities of waste at the same time that citizens are demanding a better quality of life. In particular, studies have shown that municipal solid waste increases everywhere with income and population.

Japanese postwar industrialization was marred by the Minamata incident, when organic mercury discharged into the sea off Minamata, in Kyushu Island, in the 1950s caused tremor fits leading to disability and death in many people who had eaten local seafood. Minamata had the unenviable misfortune to have a disease – and an international convention to prevent such disasters happening again – named after it.

Japan passed a Waste Management and Public Cleansing Law as early as 1970 and has frequently updated it. The purpose is to preserve the living environment and improve public health by restricting waste discharge and by sorting and recycling waste on a large scale.

South Korea’s moment of truth came much later, in 1991, when toxic phenol that had leaked from an electronics plant found its way into drinking water used by 1.7 million people in Taegu, Korea’s third largest city, making many people violently ill. Responding to vociferous demonstrations, the national government closed the factory responsible and arrested the local environmental inspectors.

Over the past two decades, South Korea has become a leading proponent of “green growth”, a slogan which it has in recent years persuaded OECD Member countries to adopt as the basis for economic policy development.

South Korea has initiated several innovative policies – too many to list here – like its campaign to cut food waste, necessitated by its 2005  landfill ban. This includes sending surplus food to food banks, convincing people not to waste food at meals (through an “empty bowl project” and a “no food leftover pledge”) and other measures.

Since the early 1990s, South Korea has been retrieving methane from old municipal solid waste landfill sites – gas from wells on a site in Seoul heated the 2002 FIFA World Cup stadium. Like Hong Kong, South Korea lacks indigenous energy resources, which are almost entirely imported, so this is a welcome contribution to the trade balance.

Though nothing as bad as Minamata has occurred in Taiwan, there have been numerous chemical accidents recorded over recent decades as a by-product of rapid industrialization. The “green” movement has been particularly active in Taiwan over a long period, noticeably affecting the expansion of the chemical and nuclear power industries.

Taiwan passed a Waste Disposal Act in 1974 which was updated in 1988 to focus on the “extended producer responsibility” (EPR) concept to make manufacturers and importers financially responsible for recycling by forming associations to fund recycling. In 1997 the Act was revised to make importers offer to collect waste for recycling from consumers and pay a recycling fee to Taiwan’s Environmental Protection Administration. Taiwan has many innovative policies, including playing classical music when refuse trucks arrive to encourage people not to leave their trash outside for a long time.

How does Hong Kong compare? I’ll go into more detail in the next article.

As Head of Global Relations in the OECD’s Investment Division up to 2010, Ken wrote and published major policy reviews for the governments of China, India, Indonesia and the Russian Federation.

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