Municipal Solid Waste charging scheme alone cannot save HK from its waste dumping woes

Smart lampposts and a tipping system are two suggested methods of preventing residents from breaching the Municipal Solid Waste charging scheme.

Photo: A land to fill by Edwin Lee.

The proposed Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) charging scheme faces several hurdles to overcome in order to successfully reduce Hong Kong’s waste problem.

Hong Kong’s waste output rate has reached its highest point since 1991 when record-keeping on waste disposal began. Each day Hongkongers sent 1.53kg of municipal solid waste per person to the landfill in 2018, culminating to 5.87 million tonnes compared to 5.66 tonnes in 2017. 

Alarmed by these statistics, environmentalists like Vicki Wong, Senior Public Affairs Officer of eco-group Greeners Action, have called on the government to enforce the MSW charging scheme to alter the way Hong Kong people dispose of their trash. 

“We really need the charging scheme to change the behaviour of dumping waste,” she said. “It seems like the situation will become worse in the next few years. We are very worried about the waste problem in Hong Kong now, and the rate of recycling has sharply dropped in 2018. Only about 0.2% of PET bottles were recycled in 2018.”

Hong Kong is reportedly lagging 20 years behind Asian cities such as Taipei and Seoul. Since enforcing their own charging schemes, they have reduced their MSW disposal by 30%. The need to conserve land for other uses (i.e. housing) and the prediction that landfill sites will hit capacity by 2020 should only further motivate the HKSAR government to establish its own waste charging policy.

There are two proposed methods of payment for the MSW charging scheme: charging by designated garbage bags or by weight (gate-fee). 

Designated garbage bags and labels would be available for purchase at 4,000 sales points such as supermarkets, convenience stores, gas stations, and post offices. These bags are priced at HK$0.11 per litre with bags ranging from 3L ($0.3) to 100L ($11). A gate-fee would involve charging based on the weight of the disposed items. This mode of charging would be mainly applied to oversized or irregular commercial and industrial waste items. 

A penalty charge of HK$1,500 will be issued to anyone who breaches the terms of the scheme.

Despite this call for change, illegal dumping is a major concern that some experts cite when discussing the charging scheme’s weaknesses.

Two possible solutions identified by Simon Mak, CEO of Friends of the Earth HK, include implementing a tipping system and smart lampposts. The former would rely on witness reports of illegal dumping incidents who would receive a cash reward, while the latter strategy would use cameras installed in smart lampposts to identify parties involved in any illegal dumping activities.

Tim Lo, co-founder and CEO of LEAF Sustainability, commented on the pitfalls of each strategy. 

“You would have to set the bar so high in order to make use of [this mechanism],” Lo said. He argued that residents, particularly those who live in higher income areas, would not bother using the tipping system if the cash incentive is only a few hundred dollars. He is doubtful that a punishment with a high fee, would receive any support from LegCo.

Smart lampposts have been highly controversial subject since protesters dismantled one during a protest in late August over surveillance fears.

“In Hong Kong people care a lot about privacy,” Lo stated. “How many cameras would you have to install in order to properly monitor the illegal dumping? And would people actually believe they installed the cameras to monitor [dumping] and not people’s behaviour? This is something that I don’t think can be resolved given the current political situation in Hong Kong.”

The MSW charging scheme should not be seen as a stand-alone solution for Hong Kong’s excess waste disposal. Lo proposes that the government should use the scheme to subsidise environmental initiatives that encourage shifting to greater use of recycling and organic programmes.

A survey, conducted by Friends of the Earth HK, showed that 96% of newly elected district council members who completed the questionnaire are interested in MSW charging.

It is encouraging to see a large number of new district councillors interested in environmental issues, but Ms Wong posits that this is not enough to make lasting change. It is also crucial for the Legislative Council members to get behind the bill.

“We are looking forward to the 2020 LegCo election,” she elaborated. “We really hope that the new members will have a more pro-environmental mindset, which would be good news for the charging scheme.”

Printer: R&R Publishing Limited, Suite 705, 7F, Cheong K. Building, 84-86 Des Voeux Road, Central, Hong Kong 

the author

Jasmine Lee is writer, commentator, and journalist. She graduated from McGill University where she took numerous opportunities to study and work around the world. Her specific areas of interest include media studies and human rights.