Sunday, 23 March 2014

Glass bottle recycling mentality in Hong Kong

Hong Kong has more than its fair share of waste even for our 7 million population. In 2012, the world’s cities generated some 1.3 billion tonnes of municipal solid waste (MSW), equivalent to 1.2kg per city dweller per day. And Hong Kong? We produce 1.36kg of MSW per person per day on the domestic side. Shouldn’t we all be ashamed, especially when our neighbours are much less wasteful –Taipei at 1.00kg/person/day and Tokyo at 0.77kg/person/day?

Focusing on glass, Hong Kong, at 3%, has the lowest glass recycling rate among developed countries, compared to 90% in Germany, 70% in South Korea and 44% in the UK. The rest of the glass goes into Hong Kong's three landfills, which are predicted to be filled to capacity by 2015, 2017 and 2019.

We wine lovers generate significant amount of glass: dinners for 6-8 people with 10-15 bottles opened are not uncommon, not to to mention the truck loads of empty bottles collected at the end of wine events (Wine & Dine, Hong Kong Wine Fair, and the coming Vinexpo). Isn’t it our duty, therefore, to help solve the problem?

The Hong Kong Wine Merchants’ Chamber of Commerce recently held a seminar on the Government's proposal for ‘A producer responsibility scheme on glass beverage bottles’ with Dr Alain Lam, Principal Environmental Protection Officer of the Environmental Protection Department, as speaker explaining the scheme, which is a part of the much bolder ‘Hong Kong Blueprint for Sustainable Uses of Resources 2013-2022’.

Under the ‘polluter pays’ principle, a recycling fee of about HK$1/litre of beverage content is proposed. Furthermore, the Government suggests that this fee be collected at the supplier level, ie. importers, as this would be much easier to monitor and more effective than trying to do it at the retail or consumer level.

While most in the audience supported the recycling initiative, some were concerned about the who and when to pay, and the associated operational costs. From what I understand, these concerns have been largely addressed. Dr Lam stressed that the fee is only collected on first sale, and re-export sales are exempted. To illustrate, an importer who brings in ten 20ft containers (about 120,000 bottles) of wine, re-exports eight containers to China within two months, and only eventually sells 2 pallets (about 2,400 bottles) in Hong Kong over the next six months, he only needs to pay HK$2,400 after 6 months, not HK$120,000 as some think.

As to when to pay this recycling fee, the Government suggested a reasonable period of say 30 days after submitting the record. Some thought this too short as they might not have received payment from their customers yet. But if the submission is only made say every quarter, this means importers only need to pay the January recycling fee in April, and I’m sure most importers should have received payment by then. And since the recycling fee is a levy charged by the Government and will be passed along the supply chain anyway, importers can always ask customers to pay it on delivery while normal payment terms apply to the cost of the wine. This is only a matter of changing habits and I’m sure it is doable.

To monitor payment the Government would require importers to register. Some smaller traders voiced concern about the registration fee and subsequent administrative work. Again, Dr Lam emphasised that registration is free. And every company, no matter how small, already needs to keep sales records. So I really don’t think the extra workload requires the employment of an army—a slight modification to existing spreadsheets and maybe one more entry line on the invoice may do the trick.

There were others who worried about consumer education, wondering in particular whether the collected glass would really be recycled or would in fact eventually end up in the landfills anyway. On this I do think the Government is eager to make it right. They have a major problem in Hong Kong running out of landfill space, so the last thing they want is for waste to sneak back there. With the introduction of the MSW charging scheme, the expansion of glass collection points, and the broadening of possibilities for using recycled glass (eco-pavers, partition blocks, pre-cast concrete products and terrazzo tiles according to research carried out by the Hong Kong Polytechnic University), I think, and I do hope, this will not be a major issue.

One optimistic suggestion from the floor was that perhaps the wine industry should be exempted because most of us like to collect empty bottles for display. Well.... only if we drink rare and trophy wines every day!

The simple truth is that we Hong Kongers waste too much. Look at all the nearly new television sets consigned to the dump just because an even bigger model came out. And why do bakeries have to put each individual bread bun in a plastic bag and then put the whole lot in another plastic bag? The plaintive arguments of those who say it’s all too hard in Hong Kong are feeble. Cutting out waste at source and recycling vastly greater amounts of all kinds of stuff (glass included) can be done if Governments and citizens put their minds to it. Many, many countries around the world have proved it, and Hong Kong’s efforts look embarrassing and shameful in comparison.

You could say it is bad timing for the Government to introduce this programme now because, sadly, most of us don’t trust them much these days, so whatever they say, even the good ideas with good intentions, we tend to object. Well, let’s give them some credit on this one. There will never be a ‘good’ time to start wasting less and recycling more. You just have to start. Improve things by 5% a year and things will look very different in a decade’s time. We are lucky to live in a city with one of the lowest tax burdens in the world. We can afford to pay a bit to push waste management and recycling up to more respectable levels. I think we should stop moaning, stop being selfish, give the Government a chance and do our bit to improve our living environment.

For those who genuinely want to reduce waste, check out HK Recycles. They collect your recyclables every week for a small fee.

Department of Civil and Structuring Department, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University
Environmental Protection Department, Hong Kong
Green Glass Green
Hong Kong Recycles
The Economist


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