Published: 00:39, April 17, 2024 | Updated: 10:56, April 17, 2024
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Solid waste management a test of our understanding of public policy
By Ho Lok-sang

Waste management is costly. Because huge volumes of solid waste are generated each day in our city, finding a sustainable way of dealing with the solid waste problem is both urgent and a huge challenge. Environmental economists believe that every actor who produces a cost should pay that cost. If he or she does not pay a price equal to the full cost of that act, efficiency will not be achieved. There is, however, a catch. Whether a program is desirable depends on how it is designed because compliance and other costs must also be taken into account.

These days when we buy anything, the likelihood is that the packaging that needs to be disposed of is considerable. The cost of the packaging typically is not included in the cost the producer pays. The consumer pays a price that covers the production cost, including the cost of packaging and the producer’s profit but not the cost of garbage disposal. The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government’s website says: “In line with the ‘polluter-pays’ principle, the waste disposed of by all sectors in Hong Kong will be subject to charging based on its quantity.” The government intends to implement municipal solid waste (MSW) charging on Aug 1.

Although the subject of solid waste charging was raised as early as 2005, there was already public consultation in 2012, and the Council for Sustainable Development conducted a public engagement process and in 2014 came up with the proposal to use prepaid designated garbage bags, the implementation date has been postponed again and again. There is now a heated debate over whether and how the program should be implemented.

I went back to the digest of the Council for Sustainable Development meeting minutes. I discovered, to my surprise, that in 2013, it was recorded that, among the “enquiries, comments and suggestions related to the proposed MSW charging”, some members 1) had recommended imposing charges on the manufacturers’ end for reducing overpackaging; 2) cast doubt on the practicality of applying the Taipei waste charging model in Hong Kong, i.e., individual waste producers take out their garbage in prepaid designated bags at an agreed time and place for disposal every day, as well as the withdrawal of public litter bins; 3) pointed out that a number of residents living in premises/buildings without building management currently would dump their garbage in the public litter bins.

More importantly, compliance cost is minimal. The government may also design a charging system for businesses so that it is not onerous for those that are struggling to survive. An MSW charging system based on household size can transition to a volume-based charge when the conditions are ready

The digest did not lay out the reasons behind these views. However, these views mirror the views that had been raised by some people. If producers are charged for their packaging, they will have a direct incentive to reduce the packaging, and then to promote their products as “compliant with green packaging”. This is reducing solid waste at the source.

The use of the prepaid designated garbage bags does not make much environmental sense. First, they have been reported to be not biodegradable. Second, it should be noted that the environmentally conscious people within the population would already do what they can to reduce garbage. They would use the bags they have collected in their grocery purchases as garbage bags, but would have to buy and dispose of additional bags in order to comply with the new requirement. I was talking to a volunteer the other day, and she told me she and her team had been collecting garbage from the beaches. Under the Municipal Solid Waste Charging Scheme, they would need to buy the designated bags, which would cost extra money and would add to the waste heap.

The worry about illegal garbage dumping is real. The designated bags are not cheap. Small businesses, low-income people, and those not keen on environmental protection would have an incentive to dodge the charges.

The idea of using the designated bags is based on the reasoning that this will motivate less garbage generation. The alternative model of charging, one that is based on the household or the number of members in the household, will not be fair, as some people generate more and others less. However, the advantage of greater precision must weigh against the disadvantages of higher compliance cost, the cost of policing noncompliance, and the higher cost of operations of many small businesses and care and attention homes.

I am all for introducing the municipal solid waste charge. But how it is implemented should reflect a good understanding of human nature. In recent years, public awareness concerning environmental protection and sustainable development has grown. Many people are already doing what they can to reduce garbage. For this group, the designated plastic bags do nothing to reduce solid waste generation. It has been pointed out that Hong Kong’s recycling facilities are far from adequate and are often poorly managed. This undermines the effort to reduce waste. A household-based charge would allow the government to get more resources to improve the infrastructure for recycling. It will also be educational. More importantly, compliance cost is minimal. The government may also design a charging system for businesses so that it is not onerous for those that are struggling to survive. An MSW charging system based on household size can transition to a volume-based charge when the conditions are ready.  

The author is director of Pan Sutong Shanghai-Hong Kong Economic Policy Research Institute, Lingnan University.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.