All About Green

Incineration - A Wasteful and High Carbon Emission Way to Nowhere

Original Chinese article published in Sing Tao Daily “Green Forum” (5 Aug, 2022)
Author: Green Power
The landfill in operation

Waste and carbon emissions are the two most urgent environmental issues that our world is facing. Hong Kong people on average dump 1.44 kg of rubbish each day, which amounts to an annual total of 5.39 million tonnes of solid waste for Hong Kong; per capita carbon emissions are 4.5 tonnes, also resulting in a high level of 33.8 million tonnes of carbon emissions for Hong Kong each year.

In recent years, the Hong Kong government has tabled a seemingly promising solution - incineration - to tackle the two problems at the same time. There will be less pressure on landfills, while electricity can be generated by the incinerator so that carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning are reduced. However, is this the case?

“Waste-to-Energy” (WtE) is now the more friendly term for “incineration”. The government pledged that developing the related facilities can “support Hong Kong on its way to achieving carbon neutrality before 2050”. The first such incinerator, named I‧Park1, will commence operation in 2025. The site for the second incinerator is also ready and the tender is expected to open in three years. If all goes to plan, the second incinerator will be operational in 2030. Site selection for more incinerators across Hong Kong is being studied by the government.

The misleading dichotomy of choice between landfills or incinerators

Is incineration really a low carbon option? The answer is yes if there are only two ways to handle waste - namely “landfill” and “incineration”. In reality, we can do more - we can recycle. Reducing waste at source is even better, but we will not go into detail here.

Let’s turn our attention to food waste - which takes up 30% of our landfill space. At present, our local food waste recycling facilities can handle 600 tonnes daily, with O‧Park 2 treating 300 tonnes alone and saving a total of 67,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions annually. This means that, on average, every single tonne of food waste recycled can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 0.61 tonnes. The future I‧Park1 is expected to incinerate 3,000 tonnes of waste per day, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 440,000 tonnes of annually. On average, this is equivalent to a reduction of 0.4 tonnes of greenhouse gas per tonne of waste burned. From the above figures, we can see that food waste recycling is more effective - 52% better - in reducing greenhouse gas emissions than incineration.

If we look at another major waste - plastic: according to a study published in the academic journal Ecological Economics, incinerating a tonne of plastic emits 1.16 more tonnes of greenhouse gas than recycling the same amount of waste. At present, 2,312 tonnes of plastic waste go to the landfills in Hong Kong every day. The recycling rate of plastic is a mere 11%. If we can make more effort in recycling plastic, the related carbon emissions can be substantially reduced.

The misleading dichotomy of choice between landfills or incinerators

The recycling rate in Hong Kong has always been low. Last year, 3.96 million tonnes of waste went to the landfills while 1.54 million tonnes were recycled. The overall recycling rate was 28%. If landfills are replaced by incinerators, the incineration rate will be 71.5%. The recycling to incineration proportion will be the exact opposite of neighbouring regions. The figures of Taipei and South Korea, for example, are respectively 71% vs 28% and 61.6% vs 24.9%.

In its announcement of moving away from landfills to incineration, the Hong Kong government stated, “Hong Kong needs to build more WtE facilities with a view to transforming all unavoidable and non-recyclable waste into resources..." We must question the term “non-recyclable” - does it mean that the waste materials are non-recyclable in nature, or the waste are non-recyclable only because of the lack of proper facilities and policies to support their recycling? It is certainly the latter case for the most part. When incineration becomes the final solution to waste management in Hong Kong, will there be more incentive for the government to build more recycling facilities, or formulate more aggressive recycling and waste reduction policies?

The road of no return

Last year, the Hong Kong government released the Hong Kong Climate Action Plan 2050 in which the first concrete item for raising the proportion of renewable energy is a “transforming waste to energy facility”. Incineration as a source of renewable energy, or even to achieve carbon reduction, is a rather irrational logic. Do we hope to create more useful resources through recycling, and reduce waste and carbon emission at source, or instead to create more waste to generate more “renewable energy”?

Incineration may be a convenient way of waste management, yet it is definitely neither efficient nor sustainable. If our government decides to put more emphasis on incineration than waste reduction and recycling, it will only take Hong Kong onto the path of more wasteful and high carbon emissions.