SEN's article on newspaper - Waste reduction and recycling, landfilling and incineration are indispensable

The plans for landfill extensions and building of the integrated waste management facility have taken more than a decade – Hong Kong must act now. These projects are currently being scrutinised by the Legislative Council’s Finance Committee.

They are also essential elements in our blueprint for sustainable use of resources up until 2022, published in May last year.

Unfortunately, there are still various misunderstandings that landfilling and the integrated waste management facility could be deferred or even shelved if only Hong Kong would work harder on waste reduction and recycling. Some say Hong Kong should build waste separation facilities for better recycling first; another demand is for us to adopt “new” technology to treat waste.

The truth is Hong Kong treats more than 9,000 tonnes of residual municipal solid waste a day and, one by one, our three landfills are going to reach capacity by 2019. This means we have to extend them to give Hong Kong the breathing space to put in place the full complement of waste reduction, recycling and treatment infrastructure.

We are moving ahead concurrently on these and many other waste-related measures. As they fall into place, there will be less dependence on landfilling. Our target is a 40 per cent reduction of municipal solid waste to the landfills by 2022. Starting from where we are, this is an ambitious goal.

As for the choice of municipal solid waste treatment technology, we are opting for advanced moving grate incineration because this is the most reliable one available for large-scale treatment with proven experience today, which is why it remains the leading choice around the world. It is certainly not true that it is outdated, as some new incinerators just commissioned or being built adopt this technology.

Reliability means it is well-tried and tested in terms of technology, emissions, management, maintenance, cost and energy generation.

Some legislators have asked about emissions from incineration, including particulate matter – tiny airborne particles. It is well-proven that modern incinerators can treat a large amount of mixed waste, including plastics and metal, and still come well below the tightest European emissions standards.  The advanced filtering technology used can capture 99 per cent of the particulates. The accumulated concentrations in the vicinity of the integrated waste management facility can comply with our air-quality objectives.

The modern, well-managed incinerators are located close to population centres in Europe, Japan and Taiwan.  One of the newest incinerators, in Copenhagen, is about 1.5km from Denmark’s royal palace. The one in Macau is near high-density residential estates and tourist hubs.

Reliable treatment facilities are an essential part of waste management. During a visit to Europe with cross-party legislators early this year, local authorities, professional bodies and community organisations there were surprised to hear Hong Kong has no incinerator to treat municipal solid waste. The United Kingdom Without Incineration Network was candid in acknowledging that, while waste reduction is paramount, having the capacity for municipal solid waste incineration is nevertheless necessary.

We agree that the most important part of waste management is reduction and reuse, followed by recycling. There is room to reduce waste in Hong Kong’s consumption-oriented lifestyle, such as cutting down on the use of disposable items. We have also made a major push to reduce food waste, which takes up nearly 40 per cent of our total municipal solid waste in landfills. There is expanding support for our Food Wise Hong Kong Campaign from the food and hospitality sector; to a certain extent, with assistance from our Environment and Conservation Fund, there is a growing capability in Hong Kong for donating surplus food to people in need.

Another major, critical waste reduction measure is municipal solid waste charging. Hong Kong is unique among advanced cities in not having such a system in place. We are testing how charging could work for Hong Kong’s extreme high-density environment, and we will put our ideas to the legislature early next year and begin drafting the necessary legislation.

There are also questions over Hong Kong’s recycling rate of 38 per cent. For comparison, excluding the recycling of construction waste, the recycling rates of municipal solid waste in Britain and France are about 40 per cent, while the rate in Japan it is about 20 per cent. We are working with the recycling sector to enable them to collect more recyclables. A HK$1 billion recycling fund has been set aside awaiting approval by legislators.

As for Hong Kong’s 3,600 tonnes of residual construction waste per day, while more than 90 per cent is already separated out for reuse, and charging for this type of waste has been in place since 2006, the remaining portion also needs to go to landfills, which represents an additional pressure point on our existing capacities.

We have started to work with the construction sector to consider how to reduce this form of waste, including increasing the amount charged.

Yet another misconception is that by providing more roadside recycling bins, Hong Kong would be more effective in dealing with our waste. Hong Kong’s roadside bins collect only a small amount of recyclables. In 2012, only 165 tonnes of plastics were recovered from them, whereas the total quantity of plastic recyclables collected was about 320,000 tonnes. To tie in with the forthcoming waste charging, we have set up an interdepartmental working group and will review both roadside litter and recycling bins in terms of design, disposition and quantity.

As is the case in other cities, recyclables are recovered mainly from other facilities – not roadside ones. In Hong Kong, they are collected from recycling facilities in buildings and community collection points, and through networks of private recyclers.

Ninety per cent of Hong Kong-collected recyclables are exported, mostly to mainland China for recycling. This is not dissimilar to, say, Tokyo, New York or London, except their statistics do not show the recyclables are “exported” when they are sent to plants within their own country. Ours are considered to have been “exported” as a result of Hong Kong’s separate custom arrangements with the mainland.

Waste planning and infrastructure provision can take considerable time to implement. We will launch a study next year on the long-term strategic development of waste management facilities with a view to moving “towards zero municipal solid waste landfilling” in order to define what Hong Kong needs to do after putting in place the essential complement of infrastructure and waste reduction measures.

We look forward to working with the legislature and community to implement our blueprint and to look forward to what Hong Kong must do next.

Secretary for the Environment, Wong Kam-sing