Speech by Deputy SPEL (English Only)

Following is the speech by Deputy Secretary for Planning, Environment and Lands, Mr. Kim Salkeld, at the Waste Management International Conference and Exhibition today (Monday):

Waste : A threat to Sustainability or a Resource for the City?

A few weeks ago, the Asian Wall Street Journal ran an article about Asian cities threatened by mountains of waste. What struck me, glancing through it, was that it didn't seem to mention Hong Kong.

Perhaps that's fair. While we do face exactly the same problem as many other Asian cities, of increasing waste from a population increasing in size and affluence, at the moment we are managing. Our mountains of waste are being built by design, not by default. They don't threaten our health or clog up our streets.

Three valleys have been turned into three of the world's largest and most technologically advanced sanitary landfills. Some are designed to become extensions to country parks when they are filled. All in all, not quite what Handel had in mind when he set to music those great words of the prophet Isaiah 'Every valley shall be exalted', but an awful lot better than leaving our rubbish to swelter in the sun.

And we are not just managing today's problems, we are going back to old landfills, closed down years ago, tapping off the gas and treating the leachate and beginning to reuse them for other purposes.

But! We have capacity to manage our waste today, but where will the next valley for the next landfill come from? We are introducing measures to increase separation, reuse and recycling of materials, but will this significantly reduce the problem of waste that has to be disposed of as the population increases, and as GDP increases? We are managing to dispose of waste hygienically, but our city's appearance and hygiene are still besmirched with litter and waste. We have done some splendid engineering, brought in some wonderful new equipment, but we haven't changed people's behaviour.

And that is the first point I want to make. Better technology and engineering, better waste management skills, they have their part to play in ensuring that waste does not become a serious drain upon this city, but the fundamental need, if waste is to be managed sustainably, is for a change in the minds and habits of every citizen, every business, every public service agency.

That change is beginning to come, but it is doing so in fits and starts. I'd like to offer a few thoughts on how that change might be managed more smoothly and quickly.

The first and most personal feeling is that a bit more humour might help. People still remember the simple message of the old 'Lap Sap Chung'. Will anyone remember the serious and chilling messages of some of the latest anti-litter adverts? Littering isn't a terrible evil, it is just unacceptable public behaviour and should be treated as such.

But while I think one should respect people enough to expect that humour and education will help to change them, I am also sure that we should respect them enough to hold them responsible if they do litter, if they do create excessive waste, if they don't separate useful materials.

There are two ways to hold people responsible in a free society. One is by legislation and regulation, introduced by due process and effectively enforced. That's the only appropriate tool for responding to litter bugs.

The other way is by price mechanisms. Putting a price on waste puts a value onto materials that might otherwise be wasted. It also puts a value onto individual's behaviour. And putting value onto people, onto things and onto the environment is at the heart of a sustainable economy. Pricing is the flexible, incentivizing tool that is needed to get to grips with the growth in waste, and to promote separation and recycling. It is the tool that most needs to be used in Hong Kong.

At present there is considerable confusion over the management of waste, and how it is paid for, and, therefore, over how waste could or should be priced. Most people assume that they pay for their waste through rates and management fees, but many do not pay rates, and for every one who does, the charge has no relation whatsoever to the amount of waste they produce. The environmentally conscientious are not rewarded with lower charges, the profligate not warned by higher costs. Furthermore, while many pay for their waste to be collected, none see the cost of disposal.

Addressing the question of how prices are put on public goods, and how those prices are paid, is not easy in any society.

[As an aside, please note the emphasis on 'how', not 'who': we all pay for the quality of our environment, the question is whether we pay for it efficiently through pricing that deters pollution and waste, or inefficiently by undervaluing the environment and paying through disease, death and the diversion of public funds to clean up unnecessary pollution and waste. ]

All of you who have lived in Hong Kong for any length of time know how fraught the discussion of any forms of fees and charges is here. When it comes to waste, the picture has been complicated by divided responsibilities within the public service and differences in roles, spending powers and objectives of Provisional District Boards, two Municipal Councils and the Legislature.

Subject to the approval by the Legislature later this year of reform measures, a single department responsible for municipal cleansing and waste collection will be created and placed under the responsibility of a single bureau. That bureau will also be directing policy for the Environmental Protection Department, the agency that manages waste disposal. Beyond a simple co-ordinating role, the new bureau will be promoting policies designed to focus every public agency, every business, every citizen, on the conservation, recovery and reuse of resources.

I think that the single most important condition for success in promoting such policies will be turning public discussion away from the trivial level of 'The polluter should pay! No! The Government should pay!' to the serious question of how, together as a society, we can best promote economic and environmental efficiency with regard to waste management. I am encouraged by the statements that are beginning to be made by parties like the Democrats and by business groups, joining the voices of environmental NGOs in favour of measures like landfill charges. I look forward to working with all those groups, and others, to build understanding of the value of such pricing mechanisms, and to win acceptance for their introduction.

But pricing alone is not the only issue we have to address. The quality of waste management services and the quality of public participation are also crucial.

It is obvious why the quality of service is important. Quality of service determines both the cost of provision and social acceptance of paying those costs. In the planned reorganization of municipal services, the administration is giving great attention to the training and performance of our frontline staff and of their management. We will be giving particular encouragement and support to the raising of professional management capabilities.

The quality of public participation is not a phrase often used, but it is equally obvious when you think about it, and not just with regard to litter.

Without each individual having some awareness of the threat that their individual waste poses both to Hong Kong and to the health of the global environment: and without each individual turning that awareness into willingness to make choices that will reduce waste, Hong Kong's waste mountains will grow inexorably in line with economic and population growth.

Without individuals in every household understanding how many of the materials they now treat as waste can have value if they are separated, we will continue to see huge amounts of unnecessary waste streaming from housing estates and into the landfills.

Developing that individual awareness, understanding and action will need more than education in schools, by EPD and by NGOs - vital though that is. It will need more than charging systems that reward those who do reduce their waste, or separate useful materials efficiently - essential though that will be. To education and better regulatory frameworks needs to be added a welcoming of local initiative by residents of housing estates, local businesses and District Councils, not an imposition of a 'one size attempts to fit all programme' from the centre. An efficient material separation and collection system is going to look very different in a Wong Tai Sin public housing estate than that which might work around Shouson Hill.

But least I be accused of shirking my responsibility and putting too much onto the public, let me sound a note of caution. There is considerable - and welcome - public interest in waste recycling. I see it as an indispensable part of environmental stewardship, and will do all that I can to encourage it. But, it is not a complete answer to our waste management challenge.

Yes, where there is muck there is brass that can be recovered, but there is also still an awful lot of muck that has to be managed efficiently and hygienically. The administration must ensure that this is done.

Even if in Hong Kong we were able to raise the recovery and recycling rate for paper, plastics, metal and glass to 100%, we would reduce the volume of municipal waste by only a quarter. On last year's figures, that would still have left us with over 6,500 tonnes a day to dispose of safely. Last year we increased the volume of construction and demolition material being reused for land formation substantially, but the total volume of such material increased by 13%. Even when we meet our recovery targets, the volume of organic wastes remaining will still create huge demand for disposal.

We will have to ensure that facilities like waste to energy incinerators are built to reduce the volume of waste substantially if we are going to continue to manage waste hygienically and safely in the years ahead.

As we ask this city to grapple with the costs, the planning implications, and the regulation that is needed to manage our waste in the years ahead, it is important to be reminded of the words of the 1838 Poor Law Commission Report - the report that laid the foundations of modern municipal services policy. There is was stated that: 'safeguarding public health is the province of the engineer rather than that of the physician'.

That statement has to be updated today with the observation that it is not the province simply of the engineer, but also of the professional manager of waste services. But the heart of the message remains true. Poorly managed and designed waste services and facilities are not just a serious burden on the environment and on the appearance of a city, they can be a daily threat to the health and safety of every citizen. Paying for quality services is not a luxury, it is a necessity if such a crowded city is to flourish healthily and happily in this sub-tropical environment.

But - a last but - let's not end on that negative note. Quality waste management isn't really a cost or a burden, it is a great opportunity for Hong Kong. Good waste management doesn't just protect health, it makes the city look better for residents and visitors alike. Quality waste management services can provide better jobs within Hong Kong : they are also something we can sell to others.

All of you here today understand that. And to see so many well qualified and enthusiastic people gathered for a conference like this is a sign of great hope for this aspect of Hong Kong's environmental performance.

I expect that over the course of this conference some speakers will make the usual calls for Government to do more, spend more, legislate more. Before they do so, let me leave you with two points.

First, in the administration we are listening and planning to do more - so think very carefully about what it is you ask for.

Second - to sum up my argument:

* neither your skills and enthusiasm;

* nor public funds and legislation;

* nor both of those put together,

are going to be sufficient in managing the rising tide of waste unless they are also allied with:

* real pricing of waste; and with

* dynamic public involvement in the waste management process.

Melding all those factors together is the challenge ahead of us. If we succeed we will have built a powerful partnership : we will create a resource that will help to sustain the quality of life in this city. And by doing that, we can all help to sustain our common home.

End/Monday, September 20, 1999