Waste Charging: A clean sweep for Hong Kong

  • Published: 17 January 2018
  • Author: Kelly Cooper

A plan announced late last year to tackle Hong Kong’s colossal waste problem will encourage both expenditure and education. The Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) disposal charging scheme, expected to come into full force in late 2019, will impose a range of fees on all waste producers, from small households to large corporations, in a bid to meet the city’s target to reduce waste by 40% by 2020.

The introduction of waste charging is set to cause a stir in a city that fills the equivalent of three Olympic-sized swimming pools with trash each day. Households and businesses have historically disposed of domestic, commercial and industrial waste free of charge in landfills, with minimal taxation fees applied for estates and businesses using government refuse services. The new Scheme aims to use MSW charging to incentivize waste reduction and recycling: the less waste you produce, the less you pay. Businesses that produce significant amounts of waste could experience a marked impact on their bottom line. Upon kick-off of the charging scheme there will be a phasing in period to enable businesses and residents to adapt to the new regulations. Almost 80% of MSW will be accounted for under the quantity-based arrangement below and designated rubbish bags will be accessible and sold at convenient locations throughout Hong Kong. The disposal arrangements will take the following shape:

  • Quantity-based: the bulk of waste will be charged for through pre-paid designated rubbish bags, which will be used in residential, commercial and industrial (C&I) buildings as well as any other waste producers using either the government waste collection services run by the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) or refuse collection vehicles (RCVs) operated by private waste collectors (PWCs)
  • Weight-based: additional items such as bulky or irregular sized objects which cannot be confined to the designated rubbish bags will be charged based on the weight of MSW being deposited at landfills and refuse transfer stations (RTS)

Why does Hong Kong need a MSW charge?

A waste apocalypse looms over Hong Kong, calling into question the viability of Hong Kong as a World City. Almost 50% of the MSW produced daily is dumped into three strategic landfills, all of which will be exhausted by 2020 under a business as usual scenario. Lack of space has placed unprecedented pressure on waste disposal facilities. As the city’s population increases waste generation increases at an even faster rate. Such over-reliance on Hong Kong’s landfills is unsustainable

How does Hong Kong compare on the International stage?

Source: EPD

A study by PwC on the livability of Asia’s largest economies, Building Better Cities, reveals that for a city to attract expertise and investment capital, it must compete on the grounds of livability and sustainability. One of the basic expectations of a global economic hub such as Hong Kong is for it to uphold a high standard of hygiene and possess the capacity to provide appropriate waste treatment and disposal facilities. Current programmes such as Sludge Treatment and Waste Management facilities have assisted in reducing the amount of waste going to landfill, however, new innovative solutions are needed to recover recyclable materials, change the city’s affinity for disposable items and to encourage residents to reduce and reuse.

Shifts in business and society are frequently made through the introduction of disruptive policies, which have proven to impact the current take-make-dispose landscape of our cities. For example, in the UK, a 5 pence charge for single use plastic bags resulted in an over 80% reduction in their use. Waste charging will accompany Hong Kong’s Plastic Bag Levy as a multi-faceted strategy to promote a major mindset and behavioural change through a ‘polluter pays’ approach.

How are business and society responding?

There are concerns over the additional burden MSW charging places on individual households and on businesses. In a statement released late last year the Hong Kong Government is set to provide a subsidy of $10 per person per month to Comprehensive Social Security Assistance Scheme recipients ensuring mitigation measures are in place against a potential cost burden for low income households.

Another central critique to the upcoming charge is the fear that it will encourage illegal dumping of rubbish around the city, perpetuating the current problem. It seems unlikely however, that the citizens of Hong Kong will risk a HK$1,500 fine to avoid paying for a rubbish bag around one thousandth of the price. The Government will execute enforcement work and identify ‘black spots’ in locations where the charging rules are being neglected, as well as launching a promotional campaign and offering support to residents and property management companies on MSW charging and recycling practices.

In the case of business – a practical reaction to the charge. Several Hong Kong companies regard the Scheme as a hot topic to watch out for in 2018, whereas others are developing a new approach to their waste streams, seeing the opportunity of waste charging as a challenge to see how they can do better. For some Hong Kong based businesses, it has simply been a matter of preparation for the inevitable cost burden. In a bid to be better prepared for the implementation of the Scheme, progressive companies such as Swire Properties have partnered with Hong Kong Productivity Council (HKPC) in a bid to understand the methodology of the MSW scheme and to raise awareness for waste reduction. During the six-month trial programme Swire Properties achieved an impressive 18% reduction in overall disposable waste. Such approaches preemptively enable companies to budget for the impending changes associated with waste charging.

What are the real benefits?

It is easy to see the changes associated with waste charging as a threat, however, if Hong Kong is to compete on the world stage with the likes of Singapore, Tokyo and Seoul as one of Asia’s greatest cities, we must clean up our act. Over 20 years ago, Taipei City and Hong Kong produced a similar volume of waste per capita, however in the year 2000 a volume-based waste fee system was implemented in Taipei City resulting in a staggering 65% reduction in their domestic (MSW) waste from 1.11 kg to 0.39 kg per day.

Source: Environment Bureau

With almost two years to prepare for the initiation of waste charging, Hong Kong citizens have the time to learn how best to begin waste reduction from the source by removing recyclable and reusable materials from the waste stream. Waste separation for recycling is currently undertaken by rubbish collectors, but the introduction of the charging scheme will foster a “think before you throw” attitude and encourages waste separation in homes and offices. If we support the Hong Kong Government’s proposed legislation change and embrace a decoupling from our heavy reliance on the worlds finite resources, we may uncover a cleaner and more restorative economy that benefits not only our city, but ourselves.

Reference list
Building Better Cities: https://www.pwc.com/sg/en/publications/assets/apec-build-better-cities.pdf
Ellen MacArthur Foundation: ‘Circular Economy Overview’ — https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/circular-economy/overview/concept
EPD The Government of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region: ‘Strengthening Waste Reduction: Is Waste Charging an Option?’ — http://www.epd.gov.hk/epd/msw_consult/document/english.html
Hong Kong Productivity Council (HKPC): ‘Hong Kong Productivity Council and Swire Properties Reveal Results of Municipal Solid Waste Charging Scheme Trial Programme – Over 130 participating tenants reduced their total amount of disposable waste by 18%’ —https://www.hkpc.org/en/corporate-info/media-centre/press-releases/7200-hkpc-msw

Legislative Council LC Paper No. CB(1)126/17-18(03): Panel on Environmental Affairs Meeting on 30 October 2017 ‘Updated background brief on introduction of municipal solid waste charging in Hong Kong prepared by the Legislative Council Secretariat’ http://www.legco.gov.hk/yr17-18/english/panels/ea/papers/ea20171030cb1-126-3-e.pdf
South China Morning Post: ‘Charging scheme is best quick fix for Hong Kong’s municipal waste problem’ — http://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/1434038/charging-scheme-best-quick-fix-hong-kongs-municipal-waste
South China Morning Post: ‘Hong Kong’s waste charge will reduce our rubbish levels, never mind the naysayers’ — http://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/2083078/hong-kongs-waste-charge-will-reduce-our-rubbish-levels-never