The environment has become a sort of reverse epidemic. Helping it is a handy prop for any proposal, from wind farming to bans on shark fin soup. And there is a serious point here. The globe is in fact warming; large parts of it could become uninhabitable as a result. Species are disappearing, concrete is covering landscape, air and water are polluted. That does not mean that every exercise which claims the environmental label is actually praiseworthy, or worthwhile, or successful. This is a good point to bear in mind when contemplating the activities of our government, whose relationship with the environment is often opportunistic or bumbling.
Actually our government was a quite late convert to the existence of the problem. People in the department of that name often complain privately that their colleagues know little and care less of the environment. Moreover the existence of an Environmental Protection Department evokes a well-established bureaucratic reflex: all the other departments try to keep it off their patches.
So initiatives in this area should be examined carefully. Consider, for example, the compulsory charge for plastic bags. The official defence of this scheme is now that it has “changed shopping culture”, and this is true. Even fossils like me now carry a bag, just in case, or stagger out of Page One with an unruly armful of books rather than pay for a new sack. On the other hand this was not the reason originally given for the plastic bag charge at all. Indeed I do not doubt that if the relevant official had stood up in Legco and invited honorary members to support an elaborate and expensive scheme to “change shopping culture” he would have been laughed out of the building.
The original justification was that the ban on free bags would help the environment by reducing the amount of plastic used to produce bags, and the amount of space taken up in local landfills when said bags were discarded. In these respects the scheme has been a total failure. If you look at the amount of plastic in the new, durable, non-throw-away plastic bags, and the average number of shopping trips you can get out of one, it is easy to calculate that the amount of plastic used, and eventually landfilled, has increased by a factor of ten. This does not, it is true, take account of the fact that the new bags are a bit bigger. But then it doesn’t consider either that the old flimsy bags were biodegradable, while the new ones will be here until Stephen Hawking pulls the plug on the universe.
Readers who take an interest in these things will also have noticed that a whole new market has opened up for the vendors of plastic bags for lining bins, carrying garbage, hiding dog droppings and other purposes, which in the old days were usually met by reusing supermarket bags. The conclusion I draw from this is that attempts to modify behaviour to help the environment can have unintended and unforeseen consequences. Officials should be careful what they wish for.
Which brings me to the latest looming catastrophe, the proposal to charge for solid waste disposal. In other words, what you put in your dustbin. A charge for what goes down the sewer (a turd tax?) is being left for later. I must admit to having some misgivings about the solid waste charge since it was first announced. People who pay taxes (and we all pay taxes one way or another – you cannot eat or sleep without encountering the consequences of the high land prices to which our government is addicted) are entitled to get something in return.
Collecting rubbish is an important public service. Not all public services are charged for. There also seems to be an important difference between this wheeze and the plastic bag one. The plastic bag charge faces you, as the individual shopper, at the point of delivery, as it were. When tempted to ask for a bag you are also deterred by the compulsory charge, which will be added to your bill immediately. This is not going to work with the waste thing, though. There will be nobody in your dustbin to point out that the particular item you are about to deposit in it will cost you 50 cents. An occasional bill will come in. No doubt you will be as mystified by it as we commonly are by the others. Why, when oil prices are at record lows, does my electricity bill feature an upward “fuel cost adjustment”? Anyway, the point is that the deterrent effect will be delayed and diffused, for which read ineffective.
Actually it may even be perverse. On my estate, as on many others, all the rubbish goes into communal dustbins which are emptied every morning. The charge will presumably be levied on the whole collection and shared out between all of us. This means the more rubbish you put in the more your neighbours will subsidise your profligacy. Conversely if you reduce your rubbish output most of the savings will go to them also.
Well these are the obvious problems, with which some well-intentioned official is now no doubt wrestling. A new side-effect surfaced last week. Officials have, it seems, spotted a danger that unscrupulous producers of solid waste may deposit it in the nearest litter bin, and so avoid paying the charge. The solution to this problem has two aspects. A lot of litter bins will simply be removed from the street. Apparently more than 1,000 have gone already. The government has also unveiled a new model litter bin with a smaller hole through which the litter must be put, the idea being that a full garbage bag will no longer fit. They have ordered 800 of the new small-orifice model. No doubt more will follow.
I am reminded of the old saying that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. Those of us who have been here for a few decades remember that public littering used to be a major problem. People who had no further use for a bit of “solid waste” would simply drop it on the pavement, or if at home throw it out of the window. A great deal of money and effort – not to mention a flood of awful APIs – was devoted to persuading people to change their behaviour. And to a considerable extent, this has succeeded. People do look round for a litter bin rather than just dropping things.
But what will they do if, having looked, they cannot find one? I find it difficult to believe that the average Hongkonger – or, for that matter, me – will simply shrug his shoulders and pocket the unwanted item so that he can take it home and pay the charge to have it disposed of in the officially approved manner. The new tight-lipped litter bins have already evoked one well-established habit: people who find they cannot get their item inside a litter bin leave it leaning against the bottom of the bin, in the hope that the collector will take the hint. And the charge hasn’t been introduced yet.
I think environmental enthusiasts under-estimate the fragility of the progress made towards a cleaner Hong Kong. Round the corner from my house is a car park popular with nocturnal couples. It has two regular litter bins and a set of three “separate your garbage” ones. Even so it is quite obvious from the little heaps of litter a car’s width apart that some of the courting couples cannot be bothered to interrupt their canoodling for a quick visit to the nearest receptacle. No doubt the fact that all this activity is taking place in the dark helps to sanction antisocial behaviour. But this is the point.
Keeping clean streets depends on the voluntary cooperation of citizens, encouraged by their wish to appear socially responsible to their peers. At the moment there is a fragile consensus that the thing to do with litter is to put it in the nearest bin. In the new regime of missing, or tight-lipped, bins, that consensus may well be replaced by a widespread view that only suckers pay more garbage tax than they have to. No doubt this will draw bitter condemnations from the plutocrats who have run their businesses on a similar basis for years, but there it is.
So we have an interesting paradox here: a scheme to “protect the environment” which will result in us all walking pavements ankle-deep in rubbish. We will have a cleaner environment and filthy streets. But culture will have changed…