LC motion debate on Reviewing the Waste Management Policy


The following is the speech by the Acting Secretary for Planning, Environment & Lands, Mr Patrick Lau, in response to the motion debate "Reviewing the Waste Management Policy" in the Legislative Council today (Wednesday):

Madam President,

I am grateful to Honourable Members for starting this new year with a debate on a very important and practical issue for Hong Kong - that of waste. As we strive to climb out of the economic trough in the months ahead, many of the factors that will affect our recovery lie outside our control and depend on world markets and economic decisions in other places.

But improving the way in which we manage waste is something that we can do for ourselves here in Hong Kong to make this city better both environmentally and economically.

Over the decade between 1987 and 1996, the volume of Hong Kong's municipal waste - that is the combined total of domestic, commercial and industrial waste - increased by 38 per cent, far outstripping the growth in population over the period. In 1997, over three million tonnes of municipal waste had to be disposed of. Hong Kong cannot accommodate that level of waste production. It is a threat to our environment and represents great inefficiency in our use of resources. Those considerations prompted us to start a fundamental review of our approach to waste management.

The question we asked ourselves was how to change from a system focused on the collection of waste and provision of infrastructure to dispose of waste safely - a system that was imposing rapidly growing costs upon taxpayers and ratepayers - to a system that would provide economic incentive for the avoidance and reduction of waste, and for the development of businesses in separation, recovery, reuse and recycling of materials.

That review led to the publication of a draft waste reduction plan in 1997, which was the subject of extensive consultation with the waste management industry, with professional and advisory bodies, and with the then Legislative Council. In fact, the Government also collected views of professional bodies and related trades in 1997. In response to the many views put forward, the draft plan was developed into the Waste Reduction Framework Plan that was published in November last year.

The Framework Plan sets out a wide ranging 'Prevention of Waste Programme'. Measures under this programme include:

* Support for waste separation, recovery and reuse

* Removing incentives for waste creation and introducing incentives for waste avoidance and the recovery and reuse of materials

* Education in environmentally responsible practices and recognition and reward for such behaviour.

If I may elaborate. Waste separation bins have already been set up in 132 public (83) and private (49) housing estates. The Provisional Urban Council and the Provisional Regional Council have placed recycling bins in 20 places frequented by public (for example, bus terminus, KCR and MTC stations). This helps promote recycling initiatives. The Airport Authority also provides similar facilities at the Chek Lap Kok Airport. The number of such facilities might not sound to be a lot, but it was a beginning to encourage waste separation. We will be changing building regulations to require more space to be provided for waste separation in new buildings - to help make such activities more practical and more economically viable - and we will be working to extend the coverage of waste separation facilities throughout the territory, to give every household the opportunity to support waste reduction activities. We will be providing grants for material recovery projects, and have already begun to provide land specifically for recycling and recovery facilities. Members have given views on allocation of land and other assistance. The Government will consider these views. We will also be giving technical and publicity support to demonstration schemes to introduce new technologies to promote waste minimization and material recovery.

The question of incentives is crucial. At the moment, the people of Hong Kong see no cost of throwing things away. The taxpayers and ratepayers pay whatever it costs to collect and dispose of waste, while anyone in the business of collecting or recycling material for reuse faces the constant handicap that the waste producers have little incentive to separate material carefully and do not have any cost if they decide to throw material away.

Due to the closure of a waste paper recycling factory, in recent weeks, and during the course of this debate, a number of people have suggested that rather than Government subsidising waste producers, we should, instead, subsidise waste collectors or recyclers. Others have argued that it is more environmentally and economically sound to inject funds to recycle waste than to pay for it to be landfilled. This idea sounds tempting, but it ignores the fundamental point of reducing the production of waste in the first instance. Such a direct subsidy would only encourage waste production, instead of waste reduction. The idea cannot tackle the source of the problem. It might also breach our commitments to the World Trade Organisation.

The question we should be asking is whether the tax and ratepayers should shoulder any subsidy at all. If we were to introduce landfill charges, this would prompt waste producers to take waste reduction and waste separation seriously. It will give the waste recovery, collection, and reuse industry a sounder economic footing. It will give encouragement to efficient business and to environmentally responsible practices, rather than perpetuating the subsidy of inefficient practices and wasteful behaviour.

I want to make clear that the Administration does not see landfill charging as the single answer to the waste problems in Hong Kong. There is much else that we need to do as well. But I do want to stress two things:

* First, without the constant discipline and strong incentive towards efficiency that landfill charging will provide, it is unlikely that any educational or promotional activities that we hold will achieve and sustain a real change in attitude towards the responsible use of resources that Hong Kong needs if it is to become a more sustainable city for us all in the new century;

* Second, we do not see the introduction of such a charge as a punitive measure. Nor is it a disingenuous device conjured up by us. Most other countries have long adopted this approach. Our objective is to remove subsidies that are damaging for Hong Kong's environmental and economic performance. A charge will help to make clear the costs of waste production, collection and disposal to the community, commercial and industrial sectors, so that we can work more effectively to reduce those costs. We are reviewing past proposals and intend within the next few months to set out options for transparent and effective charges with effects ranging from the simple removal of subsidies to the provision of resources to support industrial, commercial or public waste recovery and similar environmental initiatives.

This is in response to a number of suggestions made in this Council and by others involving the creation of a fund to support recycling and other environmental measures. Many such schemes operated in other countries, with funding provided by proceeds from landfill charges. We will need to consider carefully how such a scheme might operate here in Hong Kong, but it is an idea with considerable merits.

The Government, in fact, created an environmental protection fund of $50 million early in 1994 to subsidise the studies and educational programmes on environmental protection. Another $50 million was also allotted last year to subsidise such programmes and studies by organisations and individuals.

I share the view of the importance of education in changing behaviour. Educational programmes are already well underway, with strong support from environmental groups. We will continue to improve the environmental education of government officials. The Green Manager Scheme remains one of the useful channels for this. We have also introduced a new initiative. I have sent letters to the bureau and department heads asking them to publish annual environmental reports. This will ensure that environmentally responsible practices are implemented and duly recognised within the Government. Giving more opportunity for the community to put knowledge into practice is also vital. Waste separation facilities are one means to do that. Providing information on environmentally responsible products and encouraging purchase of such goods is another important area which we will be working on in Government and in partnership with the business sector. We will also be introducing a scheme, known as wastewise, to give recognition to companies that promote effective waste reduction practices.

The many measures under the waste prevention programme, which I have only touched upon in outline, will be carried forward through a number of institutional changes. They will also be backed up by new infrastructural provision, the largest element of which will be new waste-to-energy incinerators. Government proposal on this will be finalised after a few months' time. Another infrastructure item we are prepared to consider is the creation of a Renewable Resources Centre, or centres. We will shortly initiate a study to examine the integration of material recovery facilities within the waste management system. We maintain an open mind on the outcome of that study.

The first institutional change is that we will shortly establish of a Waste Reduction Committee. This will bring together business, environmental groups, academics and Government to implement the various measures under the prevention of waste programme. Task forces will also be established in key sectors to identify and implement specific measures to reduce waste from particular businesses and sectors. Those for the Hotel industry and for the Public Housing sector have already been set up. Others for Government, fast food outlets and restaurants, retailers and the new airport will follow in the first phase.

The Waste Reduction Committee and the various Task Forces will be supported by resource recovery units being set up by EPD. They have been set the target of doubling the amount of material removed from the municipal waste stream by 2007. They will need to allocate specific targets for each sector, review and to ensure progress, and recommend new measures and targets. They will be reporting regularly to the Advisory Council on the Environment, and their reports will be given to this Council and to the community as well. Implementation of the waste reduction framework plan is an essential step towards making Hong Kong a more sustainable city, so reporting on progress will play an important part in monitoring and measuring progress towards that important goal.

I trust that the Honourable Choy So-yuk will not be surprised, therefore, if my response to her motion is to say that we do not need more reviews. What the community expects, and what the Administration will do, is to implement the comprehensive programme of improvement to the waste management system set out in the Waste Reduction Framework Plan.

The main part of the Honourable Member's very detailed motion and of many of the points that have been put by other members who have spoken during this debate is directed towards encouraging many of the ideas that have been set out in the plan. I, and all my colleagues in the administration, take to heart the urgings of this Council to ensure that the waste management system in Hong Kong is improved and that a better basis is provided for development of the business of recovery and reuse of materials. This is our objective. It will require steady and systematic changes in practice by Government, by commerce and industry, and by each and every member of the community in Hong Kong over the coming years. Some of those changes will be uncomfortable to make, but they are changes that will be well worthwhile, helping to make this city a more pleasant and enjoyable place to live in for ourselves and for our children in the years ahead.

End/Wednesday, January 6, 1999