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Waste Not, Want Not

October 6, 2010

In late September, I joined a Christian environmental group on a field trip to one of Hong Kong’s most mysterious destinations – a public dump. A group from our local congregation, Kowloon Union Church, decided it was important to visit the not-so-beautiful places in the city to understand how our lifestyles impact Hong Kong’s environment. I didn’t know what to expect, but I was eager to see where our garbage goes and what happens to it.

As it turned out, we visited the landfill where the garbage from my house goes – the Southeast New Territories Landfill (SENT) in Tseung Kwan O.  It is one of three public landfills run by the Environmental Protection Department. The landfill was supposed to take care of the area’s waste disposal needs until 2020, but the government says it will be full by 2013 if we continue dumping at the current rate.

As we approached the landfill area, we saw large garbage trucks coming and going. Entering the main site, we noticed all kinds of equipment and machinery for waste treatment and off in the distance, what looked like a wide open valley of plots of dirt. Much of it was covered by sea green plastic sheeting. Other areas were covered with grass and trees. This is a landfill?

We were first shown a PowerPoint presentation by the staff on waste management in Hong Kong. Then we drove in our van (windows closed!) to see the landfill. To my surprise, the grassy spots were ‘restored’ areas, meaning my family’s garbage was buried underneath, covered by layers of heavy plastic, deodorizer and a few feet of soil and now greenery. The areas covered by sea green sheeting were being prepared as ‘tipping’ areas for garbage to be dumped in the future. Then we drove near where the trucks were dumping and compacting trash – food waste, old clothes, bamboo poles, furniture, tree branches, etc. We were told the tipping area was fairly small to keep odor and sanitation under control. Even then, it was obvious that the landfill was within viewing distance of several commercial buildings and luxury housing estates nearby.

The tour guide assured us that SENT worked hard to be a responsible neighbor. Relations with the public were good, she said. In fact, we found out the landfill was built first, and the ‘neighbors’ moved in afterwards knowing of its location. My overall impression of the site management was quite positive and I gave our tour guide good marks on the evaluation.

One week later, I was surprised to see our Tseung Kwan O landfill in the middle of the news. It turns out the Environmental Protection Department wants to extend the SENT landfill by 12.5 acres into land that is now part of an adjacent country park. The nearby residents are outraged, saying they were told the landfill would be closed soon. Now the bad smells and poor environment from the garbage trucks and dumping would continue to disturb them for another six years.  It wasn’t fair and they were prepared to put up a fight.

The battle has escalated beyond the Hong Kong Government and Tseung Kwan O residents. It now involves the Legislative Council, the Department of Justice, political parties, green groups, trade unions and district councilors.

No matter how the dispute is settled, it is clear that the real problem is Hong Kong people produce too much garbage! It is one of the sins of an affluent society. Despite environmental education campaigns (recycle, reduce, reuse), it appears that people really need to learn the 4th “R” – repent!

The only thing that has worked so far is making people pay. Construction waste has been reduced once dumping charges were introduced, but the charges are minimal. Plastic bag usage has dropped dramatically once stores began charging 10 cents per bag. There have been suggestions that the government should charge people to dump rubbish, but most people live in high rise buildings where the garbage is collected daily as part of the management fee. There are plans to build high-tech incinerators like the ones used in Japan, but this toxic waste will also require landfills. There seems to be no long-term planning or road map in Hong Kong for a cleaner, healthier environment for all.

Our Christian green group doesn’t have any easy solutions either. But our chairwoman, who is a shining example of simple living, says one thing we all can do is quit shopping all the time. Most of the things filling our store shelves will be in the garbage in a couple of months. She also makes a point of trying not to create any rubbish on Sunday. And most importantly, she believes, we must look within and ask ourselves why we need to buy, own and use so much stuff. For you see, the environmental crisis is at heart a spiritual matter:

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. (Isaiah 55:2-3)

In the peace of Christ,

Judy Chan

Judy Chan is a missionary serving with the Hong Kong Christian Council.  She is responsible for communications for the Council.  She is also in charge of ecumenical radio broadcasting ministry, English publications and ecumenical partnerships in Hong Kong and overseas.

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