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Speech by SEN at International Conference on Waste Engineering and Management (English only)

    Following is the speech by the Secretary for the Environment, Mr Edward Yau, at the Opening Ceremony of the International Conference on Waste Engineering and Management this morning (May 28):

Dr Lo, Prof Razaqpur, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,

    Good morning.  For those who travelled from abroad to attend this conference, may I extend to you my warmest welcome to Hong Kong.  I am as excited as you are in joining today¡¦s International Conference on Waste Engineering and Management.  But you may perhaps wonder what a politician could practically offer to our leading environmental professionals on waste management in the audience?  Do they ever share anything in common?  These were indeed the very questions I asked myself when I received the invitation from the Hong Kong Institution of Engineers.  And my immediate reaction, which was not unexpected for someone whose profession concerns the practice of rhetoric, was that both ¡§politician¡¨ and ¡§professionals¡¨ start with the letter ¡§P¡¨.  So let me take this opportunity to share with you two major concepts that also start with the letter ¡§P¡¨, which guide my thinking and policies on municipal solid waste (MSW) management. 

    The first one is ¡§Price¡¨.  For those of you who have an opportunity to explore what Hong Kong has to offer, I hope you will find our country parks and hiking trails a pleasant surprise in a metropolis such as Hong Kong.  I also hope that you will be impressed by our clean and tidy urban area.  Yet, they all come at a price.  Every year we spend about $1 billion on MSW management, from the collection of waste to their treatment at our three strategic landfills.  These services are all funded by the Government.  This was probably fine in the old days when ¡§waste management¡¨ was synonymous with ¡§waste treatment¡¨, whereby the only concern of the public was to get rid of their MSW and the Government had every responsibility for its back-end treatment. 

    In this new era of environmental awareness, however, waste management should go well beyond simply disposing of our waste efficiently and effectively.  The mentality of ¡§out of sight, out of mind¡¨ is no longer relevant.  A holistic, sustainable approach is called for to encourage our community to reduce waste, to conserve resources, and ultimately to protect the environment.

    In other words, while the Government will continue to play a pivotal role in protecting our environment, the public should also pay their due by sharing their eco-responsibility.  Firstly, people should pay for the pollution they have caused.  As you will no doubt agree, the polluter pays principle is a proven policy tool in reducing MSW generation at source.  In line with this principle, we have introduced a new piece of legislation into the Legislative Council for producer responsibility schemes, and the first scheme to be covered under the new legislation is a 50-cent environmental levy on plastic shopping bags to reduce their indiscriminate use.  We are now working closely with legislators for the early enactment of the bill.  Meanwhile, we have launched a number of voluntary programmes funded by the relevant trade for the recovery of used rechargeable batteries, computer equipment and fluorescent lamps. 

    Secondly, the community should pay for the extra efforts in recovering and recycling their waste, which will not only conserve resources, but also help extend the life of our rapidly saturating landfills.  To this end, we have been promoting the source separation of waste in domestic buildings, and since last year, we have also extended the programme to cover commercial and industrial buildings.  To facilitate waste recovery by the public, we will also soon introduce a new legislation to mandate the provision of waste recovery room on each floor of new domestic buildings. 

    As a responsible Government, we will of course not just ask the public to pay, and this is where my second ¡§P¡¨ concept, ¡§Partnership¡¨, comes into play.  It takes two to tango, and the successful implementation of any major policy initiatives requires a close partnership between the Government and the public.  Building that partnership has never been easy, though.  Let¡¦s take the example of, again, plastic shopping bags.  Even though we have been promoting the concept of BYOB since the early 1990s, the idea began to take root in people¡¦s minds only in the past few years with the introduction of various voluntary reduction schemes.  Nevertheless, despite all these efforts, we are still disposing of about eight billion bags each year, and only now has the public supported the introduction of legislation to address the problem.  We have taken nearly two decades to address the waste problem arising from a single product.

    But given the imminence and spectrum of our waste problem, we simply cannot afford to wait another decade to introduce each and every new policy initiative.  For this reason, the Government will need to commit extra resources in public engagement.  In this regard, we have recently injected $1 billion into the Environment and Conservation Fund to give new impetus to environmental education and research, which will help raise public awareness of the imminence of our waste problem and the possible solutions.  We will also work closely with our District Councils to promote waste reduction and recycling at the frontline.

    Building a successful partnership also demands trust.  As far as the public is concerned, people would naturally look for a clear commitment from the Government to resolve our MSW problem.  We can only expect the public to pay their due if the Government acts decisively and responsibly. So, while we will continue our efforts in reducing MSW at source and promoting their recovery and recycling, we have also to reduce our reliance on landfills for the disposal of our residual waste and provide more sustainable alternatives for MSW treatment. 

    As some of you here are aware, the Government is actively planning for the development of a state-of-the-art Integrated Waste Management Facility with thermal treatment as the core technology to reduce the bulk of our unavoidable waste.  Again, trust and understanding are of paramount importance in building public consensus for the development of such large-scale waste facilities.  Earlier this year we released a report on the results of our detailed site search, which has identified two possible sites for the development of the facility.  We have launched a public engagement process, with a large-scale seminar on the technological, health and safety aspects of thermal technology as well as briefings for the District Councils concerned.  We will also start the engineering and environmental impact assessment studies for the sites in due course.  We will continue our on-going public engagement, and will ensure that it is an open and transparent process.

    My audience today comprises some of the leading local and international experts in the field of waste management.  I would say that you also play an important role in addressing our imminent waste problem.  You are certainly well placed in convincing our public the ¡§Price¡¨ that we all have to pay for a better environment, particular in terms of the environmental implications of not taking timely action.  More importantly, your expertise will provide the necessary linkage between the Government and the public on how best to address our waste issues.  This, in turn, will facilitate enlightened debate and discussion in the community and help build the necessary ¡§Partnership¡¨ for an early solution to our waste problem. 

    I would therefore like to express my heartfelt gratitude towards the Canadian Society for Civil Engineering and the Hong Kong Institution of Engineers for organising this timely and meaningful conference.  I very much hope that this conference can serve as a forum for in-depth discussion on waste management issues, which in turn will promote better public understanding of the waste problem faced by the world and help contribute to a more sustainable future. 

    May I wish you all a very fruitful conference, and a most enjoyable stay in Hong Kong.  Thank you.

Ends/Wednesday, May 28, 2008
Issued at HKT 11:30


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