#Climate Urgency, #Waste

HKFP: Almost two decades after a waste charging scheme was proposed in 2005, Hong Kong has yet again postponed the plan, which is intended to be a core component of the city’s overall trash management regime.

The government said residents were not ready. But a former official and several green groups believe the city is more prepared than the government thinks.

“There are lots of people who are ready. Hong Kong should settle for that and feel encouraged, and use that as a starting point,” former undersecretary for the environment Christine Loh told local media, a day after Deputy Chief Secretary Warner Cheuk announced in May that the waste tax would not go ahead as planned this August.

Loh, who is now chief development strategist at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology’s Institute for the Environment, served as undersecretary from 2012 to 2017, before legislation to impose the levy was signed into law in August 2021.

Cheuk did not provide an alternative date for the introduction of the scheme, but defended the decision by Secretary for the Environment Tse Chin-wan as the correct course of action.

The Municipal Solid Waste Charging scheme, originally meant to take effect in April, will require residents to dispose of garbage using designated bags that they will have to purchase, or to recycle. Described by the government as “the centre of our overall waste reduction strategy,” the policy is designed to reduce the amount of rubbish Hongkongers send to landfill.

In 2022, 71 per cent of all waste that went to landfills was municipal solid waste, according to the Environmental Protection Department, some 30 per cent of which was food waste.

Public opinion

A waste tax was initially proposed in 2005, then trialled for the first time in 2006, and again in 2017. In January, the government announced that the April launch of the charge would be postponed until August. Instead, a trial run began at 14 premises in April.

About a month into the trial, the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute (PORI) found that 68 per cent of 1,812 respondents opposed the waste tax being rolled out in August. Just over half of the respondents were against the scheme itself, while 27 per cent supported it.

Pro-establishment bodies have conducted their own polls indicating widespread opposition to the waste tax.

Lawmaker Rebecca Chan this month urged the government to postpone the scheme, citing a survey conducted by her office suggesting that 78 per cent of Hongkongers wanted a delay. The Bauhinia Institute, a local think tank, found that over 82 percent of respondents suggested a further delay.

Hong Kong’s largest pro-establishment party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), also called for the tax to be delayed, citing “mainstream” public opinion, and for the authorities to implement the tax pragmatically going forward.

Much of the controversy revolved around the city’s poorer residents, with polls showing a correlation between income level and willingness to comply.

So-called three-nil buildings – apartment blocks with no owners’ corporation, residents’ association or property management firm to arrange refuse collection – have posed complications.

Tam, a resident of one such apartment block in one of Hong Kong’s poorest neighbourhoods, complained that the bags were too expensive, and that it would take her close to an hour to sort and make the return trip to throw out her trash at the nearest Green@Community recycling facility.

The requirement for residents to buy designated bags would mean producing more plastic, the Sham Shui Po resident told HKFP. “I’ve never bought rubbish bags. I just reuse the ones they give me at the wet market, and that’s enough.”

She also complained about the cost of the bags, saying the price of a month’s worth of bags could buy days of groceries for herself and her son.

Greenpeace has said a family of three would have to spend HK$30 to HK$50 per month on the bags, with Comprehensive Social Security Assistance recipients receiving a monthly HK$10 subsidy.

In contrast with recent surveys, polls conducted in 2012 indicated that some 60 per cent of respondents supported the waste charging scheme.

Professor Jonathan Wong, head of the Department of Biology at the Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU), pointed to complications faced by sanitation workers and property management companies that were revealed throughout the trial run.

The delay was also announced amid a struggling economy that saw Hong Kong’s stock market index plunge to a record low in January, Wong added, which put even more pressure on cleaners and the commercial sector.

Ready to go

But to former undersecretary Loh, challenges faced by residents were not reason enough to shelve the waste charging scheme outright. Instead, she told HKFP she believed it could still be rolled out at sectors with well-developed waste management programmes – with three-nil buildings exempted for the time being.

Several green groups have similarly urged the government to implement a phased rollout of the waste tax, spearheaded by government-owned premises but excluding public rental housing estates.

“The government should take the opportunity on August 1 to take the first step. If the waste tax cannot be fully implemented, it can still be rolled out in phases,” read an open letter co-signed by NGOs including The Green Earth and Greenpeace, as well as sustainability think tank Civic Exchange, which Loh founded in 2000.

Indeed, full compliance with the waste levy had been achieved at government buildings, residential care homes, and restaurants included in the trial run, the government has said, while uptake at shopping malls was around 70 per cent.

At some premises, the government recorded reductions in waste ranging from 10 to 20 per cent, as well as an increase in recyclables including food waste and glass bottles.

Loh pointed to the Link Real Estate Investment Trust (LinkREIT), which has formulated a plan to carry out the waste charging scheme.

Last year, LinkREIT diverted 20 per cent of the waste produced at its properties, including wet markets, malls, and offices, accounting for more than 9,000 tonnes of waste, a Link spokesperson told HKFP. It also aims to add to the 16 recycling stations at its properties.

But it was too early to comment on Link’s measures for the waste charging scheme in detail as it had been put on hold, the spokesperson said.

Though Hong Kong has passed legislation authorising the waste charging scheme, the city’s back-end infrastructure for recycling still lags behind other places.

The city’s lack of a materials recovery facility – a specialised plant that automates waste separation for recycling – could in part be attributed to the city’s longstanding land crunch, HKBU professor Wong told HKFP after a recent seminar.

Meanwhile, in the wake of the waste tax suspension, secretary Tse said authorities were looking into sending some of Hong Kong’s waste to the Greater Bay Area to be recycled.

Hong Kong has specialised facilities for waste treatment, including the Organic Resources Recovery Centre, and its second phase is scheduled to go into operation this year.

But it was up to residents to sort out their food waste if the government’s investment in green infrastructure were to pay off, said Loh, also pointing to Hong Kong’s taxes on electronic waste and its sludge processing plant — parts of a comprehensive waste management system.

“We are transitioning from a disposal system to a waste management system, which requires us to have plans for different types of waste, because the fundamental nature of waste is that it needs to be dealt with differently,” she said.

Building consensus

Loh said the authorities should aim to build rapport with residents so they would feel “comfortable” enough to take part.

“What they are trying to do is, in fact, not to penalise people. This is not about penalising, it’s about consensus-building,” she said, adding that the authorities could also step up communications efforts, for instance, by offering demonstrations on how to dispose of waste.

“Nobody is saying that Hong Kong should not implement the scheme, or that it’s a waste of time. They’re saying the government needs to be better prepared,” said Loh.

Environmental NGOs have also advised authorities not to pressure residents into complying with the charging scheme, and to focus instead on offering practical solutions to reduce waste.

While authorities did use promotional videos and social media posts to help the public understand the levy, Director of Environmental Protection Samuel Chui effectively placed the onus on residents to figure out details.

“Whether we understand something often depends on our willingness to seek clarity. If we choose not to make the effort, then it will remain unclear,” he said.

Some have also viewed the issue in light of politics. On the heels of electoral changes which blocked opposition lawmakers from the legislature in 2021, the waste charging scheme received almost full support from lawmakers.

But after this year’s initial delay, several lawmakers have made a U-turn – including the DAB’s Starry Lee who pointed to a lack of recycling infrastructure. Steven Ho of the same party said opposition lawmakers had pushed in the past for the charging scheme, which the government, the legislature, and residents were not ready for.

In April, pro-Beijing heavyweight Lo Man-tuen called for the waste tax to be put on hold, saying it was infeasible and had previously been backed by members of the “radical opposition.”

Opposition figures did indeed support the tax. Now-detained former lawmaker Eddie Chu was a staunch supporter. Former legislator and now-fugitive activist Ted Hui was also a proponent.

But the waste tax was never a partisan issue. Before the legislative changes, both pro-establishment and opposition lawmakers had expressed support.

PORI’s April survey also included a breakdown of respondents’ political leanings. Establishment supporters saw the highest rate of disapproval of the policy, with 63 per cent against it, 27 per cent in support and the rest unsure.

Meanwhile, 50 per cent of respondents who identified as “pro-democracy” opposed the policy.


Originally published on HKFP on 16 June 2024.