Fighting a waste crisis - how does the Hong Kong Government fix this?

Written by Jane Chan

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If our societies continue to waste the way they do, we risk a future of uncertainty, conflict, and violence. In the world today, the rise of nationalism and isolationism are impulsive and irrational. These issues will be exacerbated once the strain from global warming hits our homes, cities, and countries. In the world tomorrow, we face resource conflicts, refugee crises and economic recession.  

Already, we see the impacts - South Africa teetering on the precipice of complete water depletion, California’s endless wildfires, Hong Kong’s super typhoon Mangkhut. Even more concerning, is that our world order is slipping away from the neo-liberalism which defined the post-World War era. The added factor of climate change is certain to catalyze and cement these changes.

The culprit of all these issues is, at least partially, the toxicity of our consumerist lifestyles. The idea of excess consumption has been hailed as the engine for our global economy, yet it is fallaciously deceptive. In fact, the consequences of consumer-based behavior can hugely impact us through its disruption of our world order; the threat of refugee crises from sea levels rising, violent wars waged on resource depletion and policies of isolationism rivaling those of the Great Depression.

As students, it is our duty to halt the progression of this conflict. Being young and uncorrupted by the cynicism of the weathered, we need to push for an agenda-free of external interests, as we are the only ones capable of doing so. Our idealism means that it is our duty to see the world, not as it is, but as it should be.

Thus, no matter the size of our contributions, we cannot passively watch as the climate reaches the point of no return. And – we can start from Hong Kong, the city which we live in.

The allures of capitalism in Hong Kong - abundant riches, free markets, and modern infrastructure - comes with a price. We produce 3.7 million tons of waste a year, an indicator that, per capita, we consume too much for our world to sustain. The impacts of this do not just remain in HK. The impacts ripple worldwide - our disposable containers pollute the waters in the Pacific and end up in the shores of far-flung territories. The papers we mindlessly soil are sourced from logged trees in Amazon, directly fueling the mass destruction of rainforests.

Hence, what we waste now will affect us globally. But more tangibly, it affects our immediate future, where, according to the Environmental Protection Department, we are due to run into a waste crisis in 2020. This hearkens back to other cities who faced this obstacle. Singapore, for example, implemented policies so effective that only 2% of their waste reaches the landfill. Others are not so lucky - Lebanon, for example, still continues to struggle with waste management in response to the refugee crisis. Their trash bags sit in piles on the street, producing a city consumed by waste - a forewarning for our future. This means there are two options that HK can take: adapt like Singapore, or collapse like Lebanon.

The only difference is, the Hong Kong government has no reason to ignore impending waste disaster. Unlike debt-burdened Lebanon, Hong Kong has the money, resources, and political clout to make this city less wasteful, decreasing the impacts of heavy consumerism. We have been warned about our waste disposal issue since the 1990s. Yet, two years before we run out of space in landfills, we are still without a clear, sustainable solution for trash disposal in the future. We are running out of time to tackle this issue, which is why the Municipal Solid Waste scheme (MSW) must be supported and passed.

As a program developed by the Government, it aims to charge each bag of waste at an average of 11 cents. According to estimates, this amounts to an average $35 dollar charge per month, limiting Hong Kong’s consumerist tendencies through financial incentives. Similar programmes, previously implemented in Korea and Taiwan, have enjoyed much success.

The Hong Kong scheme was initially pitched in 1995 - twenty-three years ago. Since then, talks in LEGCO and external interests have hindered the progression of the policy. Yet, as we approach the 2020 deadline, the pressure is increasing. If we want to avoid the mishap of Lebanon and similar countries, we need to aggressively and fiercely support this bill.

Past trials in Ming Nga Court have already exhibited the effectiveness of this policy, and the success of similar schemes in Taiwan, Korea, and Japan indicate that this method can work for a modern city, like Hong Kong. Meanwhile, concern on the potentially regressive nature of the policy is effectively rebutted by clause 30 of the proposal. It states that “the Government plans to provide financial assistance for the recipients of the Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA) Scheme, which provides a safety net for those who cannot support themselves financially.”

Even more telling is an interview conducted by South China Morning Post, where resident Kwok Yin-Lin of Ming Nga Court stated “we weren’t used to [the fee] at first, but at the end of the day, you start to accept it, and this is good for the Earth”. This indicates the eventual willingness of citizens to agree to this program, undercutting the government’s fear of public backlash to the scheme. Moreover, existing surveys from CUHK and HKU show that, despite the controversial nature, a majority of residents still believe that the $35 charge, polluter-pays principle, and adopting waste charging is acceptable, having an approval rate of 50, 51.7, and 58.7% respectively.

On the issue of increased government spending, it should not be neglected that the Hong Kong government is infamous for its unnecessary prudence. It is nearing three trillion dollars in fiscal reserves, and has experienced a record surplus this year. With financial secretary Mr. Paul Chan predicting 5+ years of positive GDP growth, I think the government is more than capable of spending money on this program, as evidenced by their willingness to commit 400 million for this project between 2019-2020. It should also be mentioned that, in comparison, 310 million HKD was committed to Ocean Park for tourism purposes. If the government can spend such an amount on Ocean Park, a pressing issue such as waste disposal must be deserving of much more funding. Thus any substantial concerns from stakeholders can be rectified by the possibility of increased rebates.

Given this, the government and the people have no reason to protest the waste programme. Even if they do, the only valid reason would be the existence of a better alternative - one that has not manifested as of yet. While the scheme requires sacrifice, inciting certain protest, it is the best and only option available to us, lest we risk the real threat of a waste crisis. Moreover, there is the simple fact that we consume and dispose too easily - by beginning to place financial costs on this, we can move towards a future that remains untainted by the flaws of capitalism. We can be the ideal champion of free markets, the epitome of responsible consumerism - if only this simple scheme is implemented.