Politicians and public figures from a range of backgrounds take turns to have their say on important matters of the day in this personal view programme.
Catch it live: Sunday 8:15am - 8:25am
Podcast: Updated weekly and available after broadcast.
Good morning Hong Kong!
Do you know where your trash goes?
This is a question I enjoyed asking friends and colleagues during the time when I was chairman of the Sustainable Development Council and working on the issue of municipal solid waste in Hong Kong.
I was not surprised to find that most people have no idea.
An early morning visit to a refuse collection point in Hong Kong can be a real eye opener. Some of the trash collectors carefully separate the recyclables from the trash as they should. But you may also see others cherry-picking the trash for the more valuable items like cardboard, which can be recycled for money, and dumping the other recyclables with the rest of the trash. There are no clear standards for the disposal of these items that so many of us put time and effort into carefully sorting at home.
It’s all too easy to stick our heads in the sand when it comes to the waste we produce. But we are more than a decade late in confronting this critical issue in Hong Kong, where the amount of municipal solid waste has outstripped population growth by 36% over the last thirty years. In 2018, the average Hong Konger generated 1.53 kilos of waste--daily. That’s more than a half tonne of waste a year per person!
It’s not an exaggeration to say that we’re facing a waste crisis in Hong Kong. Our three existing landfills are going to be filled up, one by one, in the coming few years.
Earlier this month, the government and the Environment Bureau announced the Waste Blueprint for Hong Kong 2035. It’s called "Waste Reduction‧Resources Circulation‧Zero Landfill". I highly recommend taking a look at the paper, which is available online at www.enb.gov.hk. It details Hong Kong’s long term plan to get our waste down to zero by 2035.
The blueprint sets a medium term per capita waste reduction target of 40-45%, with a recovery/recycling increase of 55%
How do we hit these targets? Well, one of the key measures recommended in the blueprint is something we have been advocating since 2014--the Municipal Solid Waste Charging scheme.
The scheme was always going to be a hard sell in Hong Kong, but it is particularly so in this time of COVID and economic crisis. Like anything that costs people money, there will be resistance from vested interests.
I worry that political and economic considerations will keep it from passing during this Legislative Council session. I hope that doesn’t happen. This is an acute problem. The future sustainability of Hong Kong is on the line.
What is the municipal solid waste charging scheme? It’s a version of the “pay-as-you-throw” concept that’s successfully reduced municipal solid waste in cities around the world.
In Hong Kong, the way it would work is that there would be a levy of around 11 cents a litre for household trash, and a per-pound levy for larger items. Designated garbage disposal bags would be sold in places like grocery and convenience stores, and there would be various incentives offered to offset these fees through recycling--and fines in place to discourage non-compliance.
We know that pay-as-you-throw schemes work very well. In Seoul, where charging has been in place since 1995, the recycling rate increased to 66%, and their food waste is now 95% recycled. San Francisco diverts an amazing 80% of its household waste away from landfills. (By contrast, New York City, which does not use pay-as-you-throw, recycles only 18% of its household trash.)
In most cities where it has been rolled out, the cost levied on trash is far higher than anything currently proposed for Hong Kong. San Francisco residents, for example, end up paying around $40 USD per month on average.
But the point of having a trash fee in Hong Kong isn’t to make money. Rather, it’s a mechanism, similar to the 50 cent plastic bag levy, to make people more mindful of how and what they throw away.
Sadly, even in this moment of growing awareness of pollution and global warming, many people simply aren’t looking seriously at the connection between their everyday consumption and environmental issues.
This is where our district councils, rural committees and green groups can help. The pay as you throw schemes need to be backed up with community involvement and education.
Studies have found that the success of recycling programs depends on involvement from citizens, community groups, and businesses. You can’t depend on the government alone. That’s why I was excited to learn about an independent initiative that was launched last December, Drink Without Waste.
Plastic bottles are a big waste problem, as anyone who hikes or goes to a beach in Hong Kong knows very well. And most of this plastic waste is unnecessary.
The Drink Without Waste group has gathered together various stakeholders, from beverage manufacturers, to the HK government, to community green organizations. The scheme’s goal is to reduce drink packaging waste in the city by paying citizens HK$0.05 per bottle or carton they recycle.
They have some unique ideas--the most interesting one is that they want to mobilize the people who already work informally in the bottle recycling economy as collectors.
They aim to recover 70 per cent to 90 percent of used beverage packaging by 2025.
I’m encouraged when I see initiatives like this. We can’t sit back and rely on the government alone. The waste problem is something we all need to be working on together. Right now, Hong Kong’s percentage of recycled household waste is around 30%--that’s better than New York’s but far below where we need to be.
And the unfortunate reality is this: Even by stepping up recycling and lowering our household waste, we’re still going to need to find more landfill space, and build more incinerators.
The one we are finally building at Shek Kwu Chau, after years of pushback from environmental groups, is only going to take care of 30% of Hong Kong’s needs. (Tokyo, by contrast, incinerates 70% of its waste).
But we can make a start by changing our behavior. By sorting our trash at the source, we’ll make it easier to recycle waste, thereby recovering resources to put into the sustainable “circular economy.” By producing less waste, we’ll have less waste that needs to go into landfills and incinerators.
The solutions, like the problem, are multi-pronged. Getting the municipal solid waste charging scheme approved by the Legislative Council this year is an essential first step. And the government’s new Waste Blueprint for Hong Kong, with its goal of Zero Landfill by 2035, charts a reasonable and sustainable way forward.
I hope that everyone listening today can take some time to read it, to learn more about waste reduction in Hong Kong, and what the government is doing, and plans to do, to facilitate recycling and reduction of waste in our communities. I encourage all of you to become more aware of what you use, and what you throw away, and begin thinking about ways you can help cut your own family’s waste footprint. Waste reduction is a shared responsibility. The sustainable future of Hong Kong depends on all of us.
In September this year, the Education Bureau (EDB) cancelled the registration of a primary school teacher. The teacher was accused of preparing lesson plans and learning materials that involved a so-called "well-planned dissemination" of the message of "Hong Kong independence", which constituted a serious professional misconduct. The then Principal and Vice-principal of the school were also reprimanded by EDB for mismanagement, while teachers who used the same teaching materials received warning letters. The incident was shocking not only to the education sector but also to our society. It should be noted that cancelling a teacher’s registration means that he or she is permanently debarred from teaching. Worse still, it may mean that he or she will henceforth not be able to step into any school campus, which is much more devastating than a simple dismissal!
To the best of my understanding, the teacher is wholly innocent!
In March last year, the teacher designed lesson plans and worksheets for the subject of Life Education for primary five and six students of the school to discuss freedom of speech. Students were asked to watch RTHK program ‘Hong Kong Connection’ that touched on the issues of freedom of speech and how it was affected by the sensitive issue such as Hong Kong independence. Students were required to reply questions on a worksheet. Half a year later in September, a pro-establishment newspaper published the worksheets and smeared the teacher for advocating Hong Kong Independence. EDB received a complaint from ‘a parent’ and thus requested the school to submit a report. EDB also sent officers to the school to conduct an investigation. The internal investigation report conducted by the school concluded that the teacher did not have any intentions to disseminate the message of "Hong Kong independence" absolutely, but EDB overruled the report and disciplined the teacher with extreme punishments.
EDB’s press conference on 6th October, the teacher was depicted as a most vicious ‘bad apple’. The Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union (HKPTU) has been following the case to gain a deep understanding of the situation and holds that the EDB’s arguments are ridiculous. The whole incident reflects that EDB’s investigation was conducted solely by itself and conducted within a black-box, de-registration mechanism lacks transparency. Issuing a red card to the teacher in this case, the discipline was totally incorrect and disproportionate.
We have many questions to the EDB:
The teacher was only responsible for creating the lesson plans but did not deliver the lessons. All education professionals are aware that lesson plans serve as reference only. Teachers understand the background from the lesson plans and rarely stick strictly to them in class. EDB did not conduct any investigation on the actual classroom delivery of the lessons and concluded their accusation solely based on the content written in the lesson plans. Is that a professional investigation?
EDB said that the teacher overestimated students’ comprehension skills, but the students of this primary school seem to exhibit more advanced skills than their peers. Life Education teaching materials for the previous classes include topics about the Islamic State of Iraq, North Korea and Brexit, which might be deemed inappropriate by the Bureau as well. However, some of the topics were in fact proposed by the students themselves and were well received. Whether these topics are appropriate for the young kids should not be judged on the surface. It actually depends on how the teachers assess the abilities and interests of the kids and also how the topics were dealt with.
EDB paid an unannounced visit to the school in Sep last year without saying that it’s an investigation. The officials interviewed a sample of students whom were chosen by them. The students unanimously said the topic of the class was freedom of speech, the teacher did not advocate Hong Kong Independence, and that they personally did not support Hong Kong Independence. So why did the Bureau never disclose this information?
In the press conference in Sep this year, one EDB official accused the teacher of spending 50 minutes in the lesson to account for the objectives of the Hong Kong National Party, 35 minutes to discuss topics about the division of the country such as Tibet independence and Taiwan independence. Did EDB gain an understanding of whether the time planning was actually practiced in class? Did the Bureau know that the information was just cited as an example for teachers’ reference but not the focus of teaching?
The officials criticized in the press conference that according to the lesson plan, there was no room for students to express their opinions and could only memorize and write down the video contents. Therefore the teacher was imposing thoughts and concepts on students. Yet, according to what we know, as a matter of fact, the students were involved in discussion and did have room to offer their own opinions. Besides, in the video played in class, guests from both pro- and against- stances were interviewed. For example, Senior Counsel Ronny Tong Ka-wah said, ‘Freedom of speech never extends to harm national security’. Why did the Bureau not mention in the press conference that the teaching content also included these anti-independence standpoints?
Furthermore, the bureau said the teacher was offered two opportunities for written arguments, but the teacher requested to meet in person to clearly respond to the accusations. Why did the Bureau decline such a request? Is it not an abuse of power to decide on such extreme disciplines without a meeting? We can see that even the teacher’s request for an oral hearing was rebuffed by EDB. How can we say that justice exists?
At the Legislative Council meeting on 28 October, I raised a written question, asking EDB to provide specific procedures for canceling a teacher’s registration, such as details of the professional team comprising directorate staff established by EDB to handle the case, including the team’s membership list and specific workflow. Unfortunately, EBD failed to respond to my questions. EDB did not provide the team’s membership list, the number of team members, or the team’s powers. Nor did EDB provide statistics on anonymous complaints and self-initiated investigations relating to teachers suspected of violating regulations.
In response, EDB simply repeated that complaints were handled in a ‘strict, careful and impartial’ manner in accordance with ‘established mechanisms and procedures’. EDB did not provide any reason why the teacher had not been given an opportunity to orally defend himself or herself. Nor did EDB provide any justifications and reasons for its ruling of professional misconduct.
At present, regulatory matters relating to teachers are predominated by EDB: an executive organization taking charge of the entire procedure of investigations, adjudications, and the meting out of penalties. More than 60% of respondents in a recent public opinion survey considered that cancelling the teacher’s registration was a political decision. By reference to the way in which other professions in Hong Kong including doctors, nurses, social workers, lawyers and accountants are regulated, I requested EDB to establish an independent statutory body to handle matters including registrations and complaints with self-regulation as the basic principle.
Regarding the de-registered teacher, we will certainly do our utmost to assist the teacher to secure justice. We had already lodged an appeal to the Appeal Boards Panel (Education) through a legal team, and now we are waiting for the feedback. If failing which, we will approach the court and initiate a judicial review. We will definitely fight to the end!