An upside to Hong Kong protests scaring away tourists and the economy shrinking last year? Residents threw out less rubbish

Zoe Low
·4-min read

Hong Kong’s per capita rubbish disposal rate declined annually by 3.2 per cent in 2019 as the economy contracted in the latter half of the year, following months of social unrest triggered by the now-abandoned extradition bill.

However, environment groups warned the slight reduction was not enough to meet the city’s 2022 waste reduction target and the sustained decline in the recycling rate of paper and plastic showed a failure of waste policies.

On average, each Hongkonger sent 1.47kg of municipal solid waste, which includes domestic, commercial and industrial debris, to landfills every day last year, according to the figures released by the Environmental Protection Department on Monday. In 2018, that figure stood at 1.53kg. Recycling rates, meanwhile, fell to 29 per cent from the 30 per cent in 2018.

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“In contrast with the government’s ‘Blueprint for Sustainable Use of Resources 2013-2022’, which aims to lower the per capita disposal rate to 0.8kg per person by 2022, each person would have to dump 45 per cent less rubbish to achieve this goal,” Green Earth said. “We can almost certainly say there is no hope of reaching this target.”

Environmental authorities had credited the slight decrease in waste disposal to last year’s social unrest which scared off tourists, particularly those from mainland China, and the economy shrank by 1.2 per cent in 2019.

The contraction was especially reflected in the disposal rate of commercial and industrial waste, which decreased by 4.5 per cent to 4,503 tonnes per day.

Waste charging scheme dumped as time runs out on long-delayed bill

The economy has continued to be battered by the coronavirus pandemic this year and reduced consumption could lead to a decrease in food waste, the largest component of municipal solid waste, according to Green Earth’s founder and executive director Edwin Lau Che-feng. But the amount of plastics such as single-use dining utensils and disinfectant wipes would increase, he said.

While the recycling rate of plastic had increased to 8 per cent in 2019 from 7 per cent the previous year, the figure for paper fell to 35 per cent from 41 per cent in 2018.

The most important thing now is that the secretary for the environment must quickly and clearly explain why the waste disposal charge must be passed

Edwin Lau, executive director of Green Earth

Lau said he was highly concerned about what would happen after mainland China’s full ban on the import on waste paper begins on January 1. With no paper plants in Hong Kong, almost all of the city’s wastepaper is sent to landfills or exported to the mainland.

“Only if the government can successfully negotiate a deal to allow Hong Kong to send its waste paper to other cities in the Greater Bay Area for recycling will the amount be able to decrease,” Lau said, referring to Beijing’s plan to unite the financial hub and Macau with nine cities in Guangdong province to form an economic and innovation powerhouse.

Lau noted a proposed pulp factory, which turns waste paper back into the raw material, was years away if the plan goes ahead.

“The most important thing now is that the secretary for the environment must quickly and clearly explain why the waste disposal charge must be passed,” Lau said. “Political parties cannot use the pandemic as an excuse to block the passage of the bill.”

Hong Kong can’t wait any longer for a waste charging scheme

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor pledged in her policy address last month to revive the previously scrapped bill on a mandatory waste disposal charge, which would require a fee for the collection of municipal waste. Similar schemes have been ongoing for years in Taiwan, Japan and South Korea, and is seen as a leading policy to encourage citizens to recycle their waste.

Local green group Greeners Action also backed the waste charging scheme and urged the government to also implement a territory wide centralised plastic recycling programme to grow Hong Kong’s recycling industry.

“It should also revamp the recycling system to rebuild residents’ trust in it,” the group said.

A department spokesman said it would continue to work with the Legislative Council over the waste charging bill.

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