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Wasting time

Edwin Lau Che-feng, Director of General Affairs of Friends of the Earth (HK)

13 APR 2013

South China Morning Post

Edwin Lau says the prospect of yet another consultation on waste charging should lead us to ask if the government fears doing the right thing

In the past eight months or so, I have participated in more consultation meetings and forums on waste issues hosted by the Environment Bureau than throughout the entire tenure of the previous administration. In a way, this is a good sign that Secretary for the Environment Wong Kam-sing is aware of the “hot potato” left half-cooked for years by his predecessor and is therefore keen to exchange views with stakeholders to reach a greater consensus on waste management policies.

However, Wong said in January that the bureau would announce a waste management blueprint in the first quarter of this year, and we are still waiting to see what bold measures will be included.

Whenever the government is hesitant about policies, it holds rounds and rounds of consultation to try to get a close-to-total consensus beforesubmitting the draft legislation to lawmakers. But such consultation can drag on for years, with the problem turning from chronic to acute, as illustrated by the saturation of our landfills.

In 2004, the Council for Sustainable Development engaged the community for months and recommended several strategies for sustainable waste management – including waste charging and the user-pays principle – to the then acting chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen.

Then environment minister Sarah Liao Sau-tung took the recommendations seriously and issued a policy framework in 2005 that set out time frames for the implementation of legislation to reduce the growth of waste, including by introducing waste charging by 2008. Liao rightly identified the crux of our waste problems – she believed waste charging, producer responsibility and landfill bans were the effective tools to lead to a rethink of our consumption-led lifestyle.

Yet Liao’s successor Edward Yau Tang-wah did not deliver the necessary legislation and policies to address our waste problems during his tenure. A few months before he left the job, Yau rolled out a public consultation on waste charging, which found 63 per cent of the people polled were in favour of the levy.

Thus, it is hard to know why Wong and his team haven’t begun drafting waste charging legislation for Legislative Council review by the end of this year.

It is ironic that the Environment Bureau should ask the Council for Sustainable Development to conduct yet another consultation on waste charging, a measure the council already recommended eight years ago!

If Wong is afraid of opposing views and is therefore dragging his heels, the result may be the longest and most ridiculous consultation ever.

Waste charging is the key to tackling different types of waste at source, such as construction, food and packaging waste. It should be charged by volume and rolled out for both homes and business.

Repeated consultation is a tactic used by weak governments. It will merely further delay the implementation of legislation that is seriously overdue. Financial incentives and disincentives are the proven “technology” the government has been looking for all this time; however, they are placed at the bottom of the government’s waste management toolbox, and Wong seems unable to pull them out.

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