All About Green

Hong Kong needs a forward-looking land policy for sustainable recycling

Original Chinese article published in Sing Tao Daily “Green Forum” (20 Jan, 2023)
Author: Green Power
The recycables stored in recycler

The “land” problem is at the core of multiple issues in Hong Kong - from housing, medical care to the development of local industries. The recycling industry has not been spared. Notably, just months ago we were shocked to hear about the likely closure of Mil Mill, the only beverage carton recycling factory in Hong Kong, due to the termination of its lease. The ramshackle scrap yards on brownfield sites are also a looming problem. The pivotal challenge remains: do we have sufficient and proper land supply for the recycling industry to handle the enormous amounts of waste in Hong Kong?

Earlier, some concerned parties and stakeholders got together to discuss the issue in the “Eco Recycling Summit”. There were multiple exchanges among the guests. Let us try to ruminate on some of the points, below.

How much land do we need?

To calculate how much land we actually need for the recycling industry, we have to first figure out the recovery target. According to the Waste Blueprint for Hong Kong 2035, announced by the government in 2021, the overall recovery rate needs to reach 55%, which is equivalent to about 3.29 million tonnes of municipal solid waste per year.

The recovery rate in 2021 was 31%, or 1.84 million tonnes. The total area reserved for recycling by the government was about 29 hectares (including 18 short-term tenancy sites, Eco Park, O Park I and Y Park). A brief calculation shows that each hectare of land can process 60,000 tonnes of recycling waste, which means that we need at least 53 hectares of land to achieve the recovery target of 55%.

The figure, however, is likely underestimated. The 29-hectare used in the formula was only limited to the land earmarked by the government for recycling. Private lands or brownfield sites have not been taken into account. In reality, many small-scale recycling businesses are operating on brownfield sites. Therefore, we should note that the above calculation is only an initial step in estimating the land we need for recycling in Hong Kong.

The significance of a forward-looking land policy

It may not be a coincidence that all the summit attendees agreed on the significance of forward looking, macroscopic land planning policy. At present, the government has not regulated the types of recyclables treated on the land with short term leases. The consequence is that recyclables of higher value (such as waste paper) easily outcompete those at the lower end (such as plastic and beverage cartons). Recyclers of the latter will find it even more difficult to bid for suitable sites for their operations. Over-reliance on certain types of recyclables will eventually compromise the diverse development of the recycling sector in Hong Kong.

To diversify the recycling trade, more detailed planning of land use that is tailored to different types of waste and corresponding technical requirements is needed. A certain percentage of land should be allocated to the recycling of certain waste, such as plastic, beverage cartons, waste paper and more.

Furthermore, it is indeed time for the government to review the “short-term” tenancy policy. The fixed term of the 18 sites set aside for short-term tenancy ranges from three to five years. These sites are mostly poorly equipped with infrastructure. Recyclers have to put in handsome investments for installing electricity and other facilities such as wastewater treatment. Such investment costs would take some years to make a return. The short tenancy term is certainly a constraint for long term planning and investment in novel technologies. Isn’t it self-contradictory regarding the government’s technology and innovation drive?

In fact, it is questionable that the government is not aware of the importance of long-term land leases to the recycling sector. In 2011, when the Eco Park was open to tender, the government was proud to announce that the Eco Park would have “a 20-year tenancy period to allow tenants’ long term capital investment under a stable and secure environment”. If large recycling operators that are able to take up tenancy in the Eco Park need “a stable and secure environment for investment”, then why are the small and medium size recyclers not offered such an environment?

Perhaps a major modification of the short-term tenancy policy would be a long-term solution. In the summit, there was a suggestion on prioritising existing tenants, who could renew their leases upon expiry. Experience from other countries has shown successful cases. Hong Kong can refer to such cases.

Quite unlike other industrial and commercial activities, the recycling industry is very much a sector of public commonality. The present Hong Kong government, which often emphasizes Key Performance Indicators, should set a list of goals for recycling, follow up with effective action. A long term, sustainable land policy is the key to providing a favourable environment for Hong Kong’s recycling sector.