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.
Dear Uncle Kay
Over the past one year, the Covid19 pandemic has affected 191 countries, with more than 75 million people infected and in excess of 1.6 million deaths. The situation was particularly bad in the United States, the country where you live. With more than 200,000 patients diagnosed every day, we can't help but worry about you! In these ten long months, Hong Kong has experienced wave after wave of outbreaks. All social and business activities were put on halt. The economy has suffered hefty losses. We are playing catch up with this very smart virus. Its mutation rate is astonishing as highlighted by the D614G mutation of the surface spike protein which greatly enhanced its transmissibility. In Hong Kong, we are currently experiencing the “fourth wave” of the outbreak, initially started by a dance cohort and have resulted in almost 2000 new cases since late November. Despite being highly contagious, the virus virulence remains unchanged as the current circulating clade was the same Nepalese clade identified late September. Most severe cases required intensive care are elderly patients with comorbidity, although a few young patients with high viral carriage who presented late to the hospitals might also presented with deterioration. The cold weather might also increase the viral replication in the nasal passage and upper respiratory tract.
In your previous letter, you asked whether you should receive the Covid19 vaccine once available. I fully understand your doubt as this is a completely new vaccine, without long-term safety and efficacy data. With regards to the Covid19 vaccine technology, there are three main platforms. The first type is the conventional vector based vaccine, which relies on the adenovirus to deliver the spike protein genetic code into human cells, which then produce the protein and prepare the immune system to respond to a future infection. The second type is a completely new platform, using gene editing and modification technology to make messenger RNA of the coronavirus surface spike protein into the vaccine. Once injected into the human body, the immune system will recognize the translated spike protein and start producing antibody against the coronavirus. The third type is a Covid19 recombinant spike protein nanoparticle vaccine with adjuvant, which is also a relatively new technology. In the usual circumstance, it will take 5 to 10 years for a new vaccine to develop from the laboratory to go into the market. First, the vaccine must go through animal testing, followed by a three-stage human clinical trials. The final report must be approved by the local authorities (for example the Food and Drug Safety Administration in the US) before vaccination in the human subjects. However, since the health system of many countries are close to collapse, Covid19 vaccine pharmaceuticals have been given special rights to expedite the clinical trials process, in which the US and UK have already launched the community vaccination program based on the recently published phase III vaccine trial short-term results, with reported efficacy of 95% and 70% respectively. The pharmaceuticals are also given special exemption from liability clauses with regards to adverse effects due to the vaccine. Nevertheless, the vaccine manufacturers still have to take responsibility to ensure the quality of the vaccines. Despite recent worrying reports of facial palsy after the Covid19 vaccination in a few of the trial patients, there are no evidence to suggest these adverse events were associated with the vaccine as similar incidents were also reported in the placebo group. With regards to the long-term results, we have yet to know the one-year or beyond vaccine efficacy and safety. As we previously reported of the world first case of reinfection, we understand that the antibody will drop to an undetectable level over a period of around 6 months. It is likely that similar to the influenza vaccine, annual COVID19 vaccination will be required and vigilance in infection control and face masking might still be needed.
In view of your age and past medical history of diabetes and obesity, I would strongly recommend you to receive the vaccine once available. We learn from our past experience that elderly patients, especially those with chronic illnesses of diabetes, cardiac and pulmonary diseases, immunosuppressed hosts and cancer patients on chemotherapy are at high risks of deterioration and complication of developing of severe pneumonia upon contracting COVID19. These high risk patients should be hospitalized once they are diagnosed and should be started on a combination of antiviral treatment as soon as possible, in order to suppress the viral replication and reduce the risks of subsequent complications and pneumonia associated with the hyperinflammation phase in the second week of the infection.
In your previous letter, you also expressed concern about whether the poorer countries will get a fair share of the vaccines. For this, you could rest assured. The International organization COVAX will be responsible for distributing the Covid-19 vaccines fairly among different countries. The COVAX, co-led by the Global Alliance for Vaccine Immunity (GAVI), the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPi), and the World Health Organization (WHO). Its aim is to accelerate the development and manufacture of COVID-19 vaccines, and to guarantee fair and equitable access for every country in the world. The coalition hopes to provide 2.1 billion doses of safe and effective vaccines in 2021, and to distribute them to all COVAX participating countries fairly according to the population, so as to provide a certain degree of safety net for poor countries.
At the University of Hong Kong, we have developed an intranasal COVID19 vaccine based on an influenza vaccine platform. Hopefully, we will be able to kick start the phase 1 clinical trial on this vaccine early next year. If successful, we will be able to proceed to Phase 3 clinical trial later next year globally. This vaccine has the potential of conferring local immunity at the nasal passage and could combine the seasonal flu and Covid19 as a single vaccine to be given annually.
Hopefully, the universal COVID19 vaccination coupled with the natural infection will shorten the time to achieve herd immunity globally, so that social, economic and traveling activities could be resumed. I look forward to visiting you in San Francisco next year. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.