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Cutting the waste, if not the waist

Hong Kong, 24 January 2024: Legendary English magician PT Selbit is widely credited as the first person to perform the illusion of sawing a lady in half. His ingenious trick, which debuted at London’s Finsbury Park Empire in 1921, was a box office sensation. Selbit – famed for his showmanship – would heighten the sense of danger by parking an ambulance outside the theatre with a sign, “In case the saw slips!” He only considered it a good show if someone in the audience fainted.

In the spirit of Selbit – although no one has passed out yet – Environmental Protection Department assistant director Theresa Wu has gone viral with her advice on how to dispose of an old mop handle using prepaid designated bags under our government’s new waste charging scheme. “You can cut it into two halves with a saw to wrap them in the bag,” she told radio listeners, her comment reflecting officials’ growing irritation at the public’s failure to understand the initiative.

Department director Samuel Chui was similarly exasperated. “If you don’t want to figure it out, you will never be able to figure it out,” he informed a newspaper reporter. Soon enough, a saw next to the signature green rubbish bags appeared in a meme doing the rounds on social media, while “waste charging” became the second most popular Google search in our city. All rather unfortunate given that, only days earlier, chief executive John Lee had demanded authorities produce “sharper and clearer” publicity strategies for the scheme.

How has this happened? Some two decades after the idea was first mooted, our city is finally implementing a “pay-as-you-throw” waste disposal policy in an effort to cut down on rubbish going into landfills. Citizens will have to buy government-approved garbage bags, available in nine different sizes from three to 100 litres, to dispose of their trash. Designated labels will also be sold for large or oddly sized items. The scheme covers most residential and commercial premises.

Failure to comply is costly. There will be a six-month grace period, during which citizens are given verbal warnings. After this, anyone failing to use the official bags or labels will pay a fixed penalty of HK$1,500. Repeat offenders could face fines as high as HK$50,000 and up to six months’ jail.

Drastic? The move is considered long overdue by many. At present, over five million tonnes of waste are disposed of each year in Hong Kong’s three massive landfills, all located in the New Territories. Two of them are being extended. While the authorities are confident these sites will meet Hong Kong’s waste disposal needs up to the 2040s, there is acknowledgement they are not a sustainable solution.

Two years ago, our government unveiled its “Waste Blueprint for Hong Kong 2035”, outlining strategies to tackle the challenge of waste management. It has two main goals: in the long term, to move away from reliance on landfills by developing adequate waste-to-energy facilities; more immediately, the plan is to gradually reduce municipal solid waste disposal by 40-45% and achieve a corresponding increase in recycling.

The new charging scheme is part of this latter goal. It is based on the “polluter-pays principle”, so the simplest way for citizens to reduce their outlay is to filter out recyclable materials, such as plastic bottles, aluminium cans and the like, and dispose of them separately at one of this city’s 170 recycling collection points. The authorities are also gradually introducing food waste bins.

So far, so laudable. But public awareness of the new scheme remains low, while community groups and politicians report widespread confusion. Lawmaker Doreen Kong points out the Environmental Protection Department promised an 18-month familiarisation programme to prepare the public, but “none of the so-called education and publicity they mentioned has been done”. Gary Zhang, of the Legislative Council’s environmental affairs panel, believes officials need to change the narrative away from “a garbage levy” to “helping the environment”.

Authorities have now bowed to the inevitable and postponed the scheme’s start date from 1 April to the beginning of August – marking the second time it has been pushed back. Environment minister Tse Chin-wan, who has copped most of the flak, admits there have been publicity failings, but promises it will be better promoted from now on. He says there will be trial runs at select government buildings before ramping up the use of visual demonstrations and media coverage.

In closing, I should highlight our latest Law & More podcast in which I chat with Hong Kong’s most famous footballing son, Tim Bredbury. We look back on Tim’s 40-year career, which can be neatly divided into a pair of distinct phases: his successful playing days, beginning with Liverpool FC in England, and latterly working in media, coaching and talent development.

How appropriate. Proof that football is, indeed – rather like PT Selbit’s celebrated trick – a game of two halves.

Until next time, everybody!

Colin Cohen
Senior Partner
Boase Cohen & Collins

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