Hong Kong needs can-do attitude to waste treatment

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    letter to S China Morning Post, appeared on 5 July 2013:

    In his letter ("Questioning official figure on solid waste", July 1), Mark Parlett queries the government's figure of 48 per cent for Hong Kong's recycling rate. The figure indeed seems high: based on other government data, it suggests that the vast majority of domestic refuse dumped in landfills is food waste.

    Do we really dispose of so little that can be recycled; are the truckloads dumped in landfills so different in composition to the contents of waste bins I see?

    Sadly, this is by no means the only questionable figure or assertion regarding waste in Hong Kong. For instance, Elvis Au, deputy director of the Environmental Protection Department, has said that incineration planned for Hong Kong will completely destroy organic pollutants. By contrast, all information I have seen on incinerators shows that they produce a cocktail of dangerous gases along with particulates, together with substantial amounts of highly toxic ash.

    In his letter ("No trucks needed to deliver waste", June 26), Mr Au asserted that an incinerator will not cause any unacceptable environmental impacts.

    Yet recent, peer-reviewed studies from countries including Spain, Belgium and Japan have linked living in proximity to incinerators to health issues such as cancer and birth defects. Rats exposed to air contaminated with incinerator ash have suffered problems including DNA damage.

    What levels of such threats will areas near and downwind of an incinerator – including Macau – face? The risks will not be zero; but Mr Au does not tell us what they are, or just who will find them "acceptable".

    We have often been told that an incinerator will meet European Union standards, but this cannot be proven until an incinerator starts operating. There have been no pilot studies with Hong Kong waste – the last time Hong Kong had waste incinerators, they were decommissioned as the Environmental Protection Department considered their emissions dangerously unacceptable.

    Most questionable of all is the government's adherence to a strategy of spending tens of billions of dollars on landfills and incineration, and puny sums on other aspects of waste management.

    There are wiser, more modern alternatives, which can help protect our environment.

    They include extensively treating food waste, plasma arc treatment that can even create jet fuel, and a zero waste to landfills or incineration strategy, with the can-do approach of cities like San Francisco replacing the current can't-do attitude of our government.

    Martin Williams, director, Hong Kong Outdoors

    This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as It is right to question outmoded, damaging waste management

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