Orange News: The ‘beautify the city’ campaign recently announced by John Lee’s cabinet is a pragmatic first step to winning back citizens’ confidence.  It was announced on 12 July. This campaign aims to ‘beautify the city’ by tackling Hong Kong’s hygiene problems.

The new administration has recognized the key countercurrent of Carrie Lam’s administration: that the government worked in silos. Therefore, the new administration has set up the first cross-bureau task force that involves the Environmental and Ecology Bureau and the Departments of Housing, Food and Environmental Hygiene, Home Affairs and Buildings, to improve cross-department collaboration.

The hygiene issue has already affected citizens’ livability. In 2010, the rat infestation rate was 1.5%. In the first half of 2022, the overall figure for the city was 3.2 per cent, an increase of more than double. This was not the first time the rat infestation rate was widely covered by the media in the past few months. In May, Hong Kong’s Office of the Ombudsman issued a report, criticizing the current FEHD survey methodology for not fully reflecting the problem of infestation. The figure is relatively low, given that the authorities have received a significant rise in complaints related to rodents and disinfestation.

Civic Exchange, a public think tank, surveyed 1000 Hong Kong citizens in 2021. The results show more than 42% of citizens believed the waste problem in Hong Kong might impact their quality of life in 3 to 5 years.

By 12 August, within a month after the announcement of the campaign task force, the task force launched the first phase of its plan. The campaign set the first KPI, planning to tackle 600 hygiene hotspots in the next three months. A further plan will be announced in the next few months. The task force will resolve hygiene issues including illegal refuse deposits, dripping air conditioners, rodent infestation and street obstructions, by establishing a clear division of labour and improving cross-bureau coordination. The formation of the task force demonstrates the Government’s determination to articulate the issue’s core, enhancing cross-department communication and helping officials clarify their roles and responsibilities.

Rodent infestation is a critical issue that affects Hong Kong’s livability. A city-wide campaign is a good way to mitigate this in the short term. Glaringly, the Government hasn’t revealed how they will tackle the problem’s root cause after the campaign. Cleaning streets can never truly address the issue.

Research shows common approaches taken by city governments to managers often fail. Humans and the prolific quantities of food they waste are the most important factors contributing to infestations. In fact, rat behaviours contribute less to infestations than do humans. However, authorities seldom tackle this cause.

Deputy Chief Secretary Warner Cheuk hopes people will stop throwing rubbish in the streets. He added, “if such behaviour continues, the problem of dirty streets will be like a ’recurring nightmare’ despite authorities’ efforts.”

Indeed, we need to motivate citizens to change their behaviour if we want to beautify our city. Therefore, we must not only require a city-wide campaign, but also a holistic policy that can make sure a systemic change can happen in our city. This should include problem identification, well-established KPI and well-defined responsibility across the whole society.

Hong Kong is facing fundamental issues that require the Government’s attention.

First, Hong Kong failed to reach the official target set out in the Waste Blueprint 2013-2022. The blueprint called for a reduction in solid waste by 40% to 0.8kg per capita per day by 2022. In 2020, disposed waste per capita was still high, at the rate of 1.44kg per day.

Secondly, Hong Kong has insufficient facilities to handle food waste. Currently, only O-park 1 is in operation, with a handling capacity of 200 tonnes. The O-park 2 will operate in 2023, with 300 tonnes capacity. While Hong Kong produces around 3500 tonnes of food waste daily, the current and planned handling capacity can only address the tip of the iceberg.

Thirdly, Hong Kong lacks incentives to encourage the public to separate kitchen refuse. Therefore, the public deposits leftovers without proper sorting. Citizens may use inappropriate containers or bags while depositing refuse. Mixed waste deposits increase the chance of waste leakage, eventually deteriorating the street or back-alley environment.

Furthermore, the existing waste collection network is not efficient enough. Refuse bags can often be seen left on the street for hours without proper handling before collection. Besides the lack of an effective residential waste collection system, some restaurants just put waste in back alleys without disposing it into well-covered bins. Both are key driving forces to attract rodents.

The Waste Blueprint for Hong Kong 2035, announced in 2021, will be a good anchor point for building policy and action to tackle the issue. The blueprint has three key visions to be achieved by 2035: waste reduction, resource circulation and zero landfill. It also proposed a clear target of boosting the recovery rate to 55% and developing adequate waste-to-energy facilities, including an O-park for handling food waste.

The government must leverage this blueprint to craft effective policies to reinforce the campaign and create a beautified city on the following fronts.

On the value-creating front, the fundamental solution is to create a value of 3500 tonnes of food waste by establishing a local circular economy. Once the government creates an additional value of food waste, an extensive collection network will emerge.

On the incentive front, we should explore the opportunity to upgrade existing community recycling facilities to handle domestic food waste. Once the government provide sufficient incentives, it will encourage citizens, especially those living in old buildings, to sort and deposit food waste appropriately

On the disincentives front, the government should accelerate the implementation of MSW charging and increase fines for illegal dumping.

On the education front, the government should establish a partnership with community leaders and NGOs to educate citizens on proper waste separation and motivate waste reduction and separation.

The task force is a good start to tackling the rodent infestation problem and has excited the Hong Kong public. But the government should not take all responsibility. Once it has identified inter-department responsibilities, the Chief Executive and secretary must spend the effort to craft appropriate waste management policies, and mobilize Hong Kong citizens to ‘beautify’ Hong Kong together.


Originally published on Orange News on 23 Aug 2022. Written by Lawrence Iu.