Go full charge into waste revolution

City talk | James Wong 16 Jan 2019

James Wong, Research Assistant Professor of Public Policy, HKUST

As details of a long-awaited waste charging scheme were recently put forward by the government, politicians and opinion leaders are debating whether the rate has been set at the optimal level to ensure effective compliance.

This is undeniably a crucial question.

But why do we care about compliance?

Charging for waste is an example of "eco-taxes" which seek to discourage people from pollution through fiscal incentives.

Based on the polluter-pays principle, it puts a price tag on waste disposal.

The more the waste that needs to be disposed, the higher the cost that people will need to pay.

An apparent advantage of eco-taxes is flexibility.

It offers people the freedom to decide whether and how far they want to comply.

Instead of coercion, the fiscal incentives encourage people to reduce or eliminate the polluting behavior.

However, it is not difficult to identify compliance challenges for waste charging. People can stay unmotivated to reduce waste disposal if the rate is too low.

On the other hand, a relatively high rate may motivate people to find ways to get around the charge, such as dumping garbage in bins on the streets or even other people's backyards, hence requiring additional manpower to guard against trash disposal.

This way, eco-taxes are targeting changes in people's behavior without dealing with their underlying attitudes.

They drive people to abandon their polluting behavior mainly out of self-interest - their own interest in avoiding sanctions, rather than their obligation to pursue the common good of environmental protection.

Such motivations are certainly not enough to fundamentally change people's attitudes, nor can they alleviate the pressure on our landfills.

Latest official figures have shown the amount of municipal solid waste we sent to landfills in 2017 still saw an increase of 3.7 percent compared to 2016.

While the implementation of the proposed waste-disposal levy may help us address our imminent landfill problem, to ensure sustainable compliance, why don't we start working on people's attitudes?

The key is to make people realize it is their moral obligation to cut down on waste, regardless of whether a charging system is in place.

People will then see waste reduction as not merely a rational response to waste charging but also a reasonable moral duty to the environment.

Only in this way can we worry less about compliance.

Our government has recently launched a number of campaigns to raise the public awareness of waste reduction and recycling - with the "Big Waster" mascot seeming to have won the hearts of many people in town.

This is indeed a good place to start.

But in the long run, we need to go beyond mere publicity and educate people more systematically on the ethics of waste reduction and, more broadly, our moral relationships with future generations and nature.

HKUST experts have their fingers on the pulse of a new age of science, technology and innovation.

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