Where there's muck, there's money
With the steady growth of Asian cities more and more waste is being produced and, if not treated correctly, will become a huge environmental issue.
While increased consumerism seems to go hand in hand with increased waste production, this doesn't have to be the case. Growing wealth could bring new technologies and systems to deal with waste and close the loop of resource use, with many environmental benefits as a result.
Hong Kong's wealth and distinctly careless consumerism has brought it the inglorious title of the society with the highest waste production per capita, although this is hard to notice given the city's general cleanliness.
Despite waste being quickly taken out of sight, the question nonetheless remains: What is being done with it? The short answer is that half of the waste is transported to three big landfills.
Built in 1989 for HKD6 billion they were designed to last until 2020, but they will actually close in 2014, 2016 and 2018 respectively, after having cost HKD790 million of public money annually to operate.
Landfills require protective layers so the dumped waste does not affect the soil underneath and eventually the groundwater. Even given these conditions, the rotting organic waste releases biogas into the atmosphere.
So why not extend the landfills? Well ... one important resource is needed: land. This land has to be located far away from the major urban centres, which usually means nature has to be destroyed for landfills to be built.
Of course, it should not be the goal to continue wasting like this in the first place. In the end, the waste in landfills still has to be taken care of, even if land-filling is stopped. A lax policy towards landfill extension there just creates a bigger problem for the future.
At the very beginning of the waste chain there is of course the individual person who creates waste. The less waste people produce, the less waste has to be taken care of. People need to change their everyday consume behaviour.
The Hong Kong Government has initiated programmes to motivate citizens to reduce their waste. The Programme on Source Separation of Domestic Waste aimed to accelerate the installation of waste separation facilities in Hong Kong's buildings.
The results have differed depending on whether separation facilities were located on each floor or only on the ground floor. The amount of recovered recyclables increased 91 percent for the former and 77 percent for the latter. This shows that the easier the opportunity to recycle, the more people engage in it.
Of course people think more about waste separation when it directly affects them. In 2006 the Government started charging construction companies for the waste they produced. In three years the generated waste dropped from 6,560 to 2,660 tonnes per day.
Looking at the wealth gap in Hong Kong, however, charging individuals for their waste would be a difficult option politically.
While Hong Kong has an official recycling rate of 49 percent only 1 percent is actually recycled locally, while the rest is shipped mostly to Mainland China.
A high rate of recycling is certainly a good thing but Hong Kong clearly does not see waste as a resource. What it is exporting are valuable raw materials that simply require correct harvesting. This harvesting requires modern waste treatment facilities for different kinds of waste.
In 2008 a trial on organic waste treatment was undertaken with a pilot plant in Kowloon Bay that composts food waste. Its success has led to plans for two full-scale organic waste treatment facilities (OWTFs), which are due to start operation in 2014 and 2016-7. Organic waste is used to create biogas for energy generation, and then the rest is composted.
Looking at the 3,200 tonnes of daily food waste, there still is a lot of potential, with the facilities only treating 400-500 tonnes per day. But it is a step in the right direction.
In 2018 there will once again be a waste incinerator - called an Integrated Waste Management Facility - operating in Hong Kong. Hong Kong's previous incinerators had to be closed due to their heavy air pollution but modern facilities do not pose this threat.
They are designed to reduce the waste's volume by 90 percent and turn the heat generated during the process to energy. The ashes are still put into the landfills, albeit the reduced volume of landfill waste lengthens their life time. The waste problem itself, however, is not being fully tackled.
The wet/dry waste separation system uses an easy to practice principle: waste is separated into just wet or dry categories at the household level. It theoretically takes care of every waste and has been tested in Hong Kong in 2003.
The Environmental Protection Department reported that the recycling rates were higher than in any other system tested, but it simply was too costly because at that time humans sorted the waste.
In more modern wet/dry systems, however, wet waste (i.e. organic waste) would be treated in OWTFs and dry waste processed at modern recycling facilities. There the waste is loaded into a shredder and reduced to little pieces. These are then classified by x-rays and sorted, resulting in raw materials with high worth.
As advances are made, Hong Kong should revisit waste management systems and technologies, so that the term "waste" itself becomes redundant and nothing is wasted.