28th May 2024 – (Hong Kong) Hong Kong’s long-awaited municipal solid waste (MSW) charging scheme, which has been in the works for nearly two decades and has spanned four administrations, has finally met its demise. After years of controversy, multiple postponements, and a failure to gain public support, the government has officially announced that the scheme will be put on hold indefinitely, with no specific implementation date in sight.

The decision to shelve the scheme comes as a relief to many Hong Kong residents who have been concerned about the potential financial burden it would impose. The government’s move to address these concerns is commendable, as it demonstrates a willingness to listen to public sentiment and prioritise the well-being of its citizens.

The government has acknowledged the wide range of objections raised by the public against the waste charging scheme. These concerns include the potential increase in household expenses, the perceived unfairness of the scheme, the environmental impact of using more plastic bags, the lack of space in homes for waste segregation and recycling, insufficient recycling infrastructure, the complexity of the charging process, the increased workload for cleaning staff, the potential rise in management costs, and the likelihood of people littering to avoid paying the fees.

After an 8-week pilot run, the government found that most residential building participants did not properly use the designated garbage bags, and there was no significant change in waste disposal habits or recycling rates. Moreover, the trial revealed that waste segregation significantly increased the workload of cleaning staff.

The Secretary for Environment and Ecology admitted that the trial results indicated that Hong Kong does not currently have the necessary conditions to implement the waste charging scheme effectively. Changing habits requires a multi-faceted approach and a step-by-step process. The government has pledged to accelerate the expansion of the recycling network, including installing additional smart food waste recycling bins in public housing estates and large private housing developments, with the goal of doubling the number of these facilities within the next year. Additionally, there are plans to set up 100 food waste recycling street stations and collection points at 100 refuse collection points.

The “Green@Community” recycling stations will also extend their operating hours and increase the number of collection points from 200 to 800. These stations will be established at large refuse collection points to emphasise the government’s unchanging commitment to waste reduction and recycling.

While the waste charging scheme has been put on hold, it is crucial to recognise that the government is not simply sitting idle. Instead, it is making concerted efforts to address the shortcomings identified during the trial period. By expanding recycling infrastructure and making it more convenient for the public to participate in waste reduction, the government is taking a proactive approach to tackle the issue at its roots.

As citizens, we all have a role to play in reducing waste at the source. If the government provides adequate support and makes recycling accessible and convenient, it is possible to implement effective environmental policies without resorting to punitive measures like the waste charging scheme. Had the government been more thoughtful, considered the public’s perspective, and addressed their concerns earlier, the waste charging scheme might not have dragged on for so many years, only to be abandoned amidst a storm of public discontent.

Despite the indefinite postponement of the waste charging scheme, the government has announced that it will continue to distribute designated garbage bags to public housing tenants for six months starting from June, providing 20 bags per month to encourage them to limit their waste disposal and participate in recycling. Some legislators have raised concerns about potential breach of contract issues with the designated bag suppliers and whether the already-produced bags can be sold to the public at a lower price to recover some of the costs.

However, it is worth noting that the government has a history of being a “big waster” of public funds. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government produced and distributed a large number of copper-core face masks to the public, which were ridiculed as “granny panty masks” and received overwhelmingly negative feedback, resulting in a substantial waste of public funds. In the case of the designated waste charging bags, since the policy has been halted, the government should consider distributing them to public housing tenants for free instead of worrying about the costs.

It is crucial for the government to learn from its past mistakes and avoid being a “big waster” while promoting waste reduction. By focusing on developing a comprehensive recycling infrastructure, engaging the public in waste reduction efforts, and providing convenient and accessible solutions, Hong Kong can make significant strides in managing its waste without resorting to controversial and burdensome schemes.