Hong Kong Plan B waste strategy adopts zero waste and plasma arc to avoid dump and burn

Hong Kong government aims to dump and burn waste, and has no Plan B. Instead, it should develop a strategy that will energise Hong Kong by targeting zero waste to landfills and incinerators.

I’m among the opponents to the Shek Kwu Chau incinerator. At first, this was because it was near Cheung Chau, where I live. It seemed wrong to me to build an industrial site complete with 150-metre chimney in this beautiful part of Hong Kong. But as I learned more about incineration, and alternatives, I came to believe it would be the wrong approach no matter which location is chosen.

I have also come to believe that relying on landfills is outdated. So I am glad that legislators recently rejected the expansion of the Tseung Kwan O landfill – even though our environment secretary, KS Wong, has said that if landfills can’t be expanded and no incinerator is built, the government has no Plan B. Isn’t this because it has been lacking in vision and bold out-of-the-box thinking?

The current government strategy on waste dates from 2005, when there was a modest aim for a 1% per year reduction in Hong Kong’s domestic waste [municipal solid waste] until 2014. Yet actual quantities of waste have increased. In 2011, domestic waste reached almost 9,000 tonnes per day, a third more than in 2005.

Few steps taken; opposition to landfills and incineration

In May this year, the government introduced a blueprint on sustainable use of resources, with the environment secretary acknowledging that “we have only taken some of the steps” for tackling waste.

Steps that have not been implemented on account of political opposition include charging for domestic waste, which was to be introduced in 2007. Waste charging in Taiwan has produced impressive results.

Political opposition is also thwarting plans to expand Hong Kong’s three landfills, especially at Tseung Kwan O. Plans for huge incinerators to handle much of the waste that was not recycled have also run into problems.

The government’s claims about incineration had seemed good, such as assertions it would employ technologies to “completely destroy” organic pollutants. But other information shows incinerators create significant air pollution, and several recent studies from countries including Spain, Belgium and Japan link incinerators to higher risk of cancers and birth defects. In addition, laboratory rats breathing air contaminated with incinerator ash have suffered tissue, blood and DNA damage.

So, what do we do? As I see it, the government must first end its fixation with incinerators. If we don’t build an incinerator, Hong Kong won’t suddenly become covered in waste; though businesses expecting to benefit from billions of dollars in spending might be very disappointed.

Aim for zero waste to landfills [and incinerators]

Next, the government needs to refocus: develop a strategy that will energise Hong Kong by aiming for zero waste to landfills. Our officials tell us Hong Kong cannot do this, even as cities such as San Francisco are well on the way towards achieving it through waste reduction and recycling. Hong Kong is timid by comparison.

A zero waste strategy would cost money. But Hong Kong already plans to spend well over HK$20 billion on extending landfills and building just one incinerator. This would be better spent on reducing waste and recycling efforts, which are currently haphazard and woefully underfunded. Recycling are too often left to small companies, some green groups, and an unofficial army of elderly scavengers who work for a pittance. If the government can push for costly incineration, surely it can do much more regarding recycling.

Given the resistance to waste charging, the government should consider incentives for throwing away less. Deposits on bottles would encourage people bring them to collection points for reuse and recycling. In addition, as much of the domestic waste is unwanted food, both education and encouragement is needed to reduce this.

Treat food waste, employ plasma arc technology

But food waste can be treated to create gas for energy or biofuel as well as compost. The government plans two puny food treatment plants. Why not much bigger plants, or several smaller plants at or near waste transfer stations?

Plasma arc technology could provide a further solution for organic waste and excess compost from food treatment. It involves heating waste streams to several thousand degrees Celsius, and blasting molecules apart to produce gas that can even be used as jet fuel. If there’s insufficient waste to treat, we could mine landfills to extract valuable metals. This would help restore landscapes, which should benefit nearby residents.

Plasma arc companies could build plants here at little or no cost to the taxpayer, by striking deals with airlines that would buy the fuel. Indeed, estimates by Peter Reid of the newly established Hong Kong Smart City Waste Resources Association show this technology would provide a far less expensive solution than the government’s plan to expand landfills and build an incinerator.

Plus it can be implemented more quickly and would give Hong Kong expertise in new waste technologies, while also generating jobs, and delivering a wider range of benefits.

Well, then. What are we waiting for?!

Written for Ming Pao Weekly; appeared [in Chinese] on 20 July 2013.

Martin Williams

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