For many members of the public, waste management has long been an issue they’re happy to treat as a (relatively) invisible function of government. However, as Professor Christine Loh, Chief Development Strategist at The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, was keen to point out in her presentation in Lingnan University’s Cities and Governance Webinar Series 2022/23, a growing number of significant new decisions are going to have to be made by municipal governments – and by the populations they serve.
Prof Loh was Hong Kong’s Under Secretary for the Environment between 2012 and 2017, and, during the course of her career, has held leadership roles in a number of Hong Kong-based organisations related to the environment, equal opportunities, arts and culture, and human rights.
She began her webinar by pointing out that a key way to assess the performance of a municipal authority is in terms of its success in managing, treating and disposing of the large volumes of varied waste its city generates.
“But I’d like to talk about how challenging it is for any government, and I’m not just talking about the government in Hong Kong, to deal with waste,” she said.
The complexities of waste management
Waste management is not just a complex process, it’s also a costly one, Prof Loh noted. It can, therefore, often be poorly handled and run the risk of leaving behind serious socio-economic problems.
Waste comes in numerous varieties, including biomedical, animal by-product and commercial waste, each of which has to be treated in a different way. In her presentation, Prof Loh chose to focus on solid waste
However, even solid waste can fall into a range of categories. For example, it can be considered based on its origin, such as agricultural or industrial, its properties, eg, organic or hazardous, or its type, say mining or radioactive. Or it can be viewed from the perspective of hazardous versus non-hazardous.
While everyone was familiar with requests to put the plastic component of their solid waste into recycling bins, she explained there are, in fact, seven separate categories of plastic. So to help reduce the quantity of plastic waste produced, the government has to run a number of different campaigns, such as those to dissuade the public from using plastic straws and cutlery, and those to raise awareness of the harm microplastics can cause if they get into seawater and are consumed by fish.
The need for an overall strategy and specific plans
“We need specific plans for each type of waste,” Prof Loh said. But before these plans can be devised, one question has to be answered. “Do we understand the waste profile in our city?”
Collecting accurate data on waste is a painstaking but essential task. The Hong Kong Environmental Protection Department reports that, in 2021, 31 percent of the city's municipal solid waste was recovered for recycling.
While metals make up only two percent of the total solid waste, and paper 20 percent, 53 percent of the metal, and 33 percent of the paper, gets recycled. This is because these materials retain commercial value. In contrast, only six percent of plastic is recycled, and while 33 percent of solid waste is food waste, only four percent gets recycled – although that percentage is increasing year-on-year.
Each category needs a separate plan. To deal more effectively with the 70,000 tonnes of waste electrical and electronic equipment generated each year in Hong Kong, a law was passed in 2018 to provide for its collection, recycling and treatment. This system is partially paid for by a levy added to the price of electrical goods.
Hong Kong generates 3,000 tonnes of food waste per day and collecting it is difficult, so the government has initially focused its efforts on businesses, such as food processing plants. The city’s first food waste plant was built in 2018 and the second is due to come online in 2023. In the past treated, sewage would go into landfill but now the plan is to mix food waste with sludge from sewage, to create biogas for generating energy.
Success depends on societal support and behavioural change
Prof Loh said that, currently, there are not enough treatment plants in Hong Kong to process waste in all its varieties, and businesses and government needed to actively facilitate the creation of a circular economy so the amount we have to dispose of is very small.
However, she pointed out, society’s role in waste management comes at top of the waste ‘hierarchy’: prevent, reduce, reuse, recycle, repair or recover and, finally, dispose. Some steps, though, are unpopular with the public, such as the building of new facilities and the introduction of charges to fund recycling, and resistance to these measures can slow necessary change.
“But if we don’t support changes to our behaviour, if we don’t accept that we need to pay in order to recycle, it will be very hard (to implement changes),” Prof Loh concluded.