Environmental groups have accused the Hong Kong government of dragging its heels over the imposition of new garbage tax by setting a vague “minimum 18-month” timeframe for the levy to kick-in.

Sixteen years after it was first floated as an idea, the garbage tax move was approved by the Legislative Council on Thursday. The new tax will require Hongkongers to buy plastic bags for trash disposal.

Green activists also said that for the new levy to achieve effective waste reduction, the government still needs to expand its centralised plastics recycling scheme, build a third food waste treatment plant and educate the public.

The rubbish tax scale based on the amount of trash to be disposed of. Photo: GovHK.

The new scheme means Hongkongers will have to purchase bags in which to dispose of their rubbish or be fined HK$1,500. The bags will come in nine different sizes, ranging from three litres to to 100 litres, each litre costing HK$0.11. They will be made available for purchase from 4,000 supermarkets, convenience stores, post offices, vending machines across the city and online.

A household using one 10 or 15 litre bag per day would amount to about HK$33 to HK$51 a month in garbage tax. The scheme aims to incentivise recycling and reducing waste at source.

However several environmental protection advocacy groups in the city have slammed the government for not setting a date on which the law will become effective. Instead, environmentalists said the government conceded to requests from pro-establishment lawmakers to begin charging the tax at least 18 months after the law was approved to allow for a “preparatory period” — an extension of the previously promised 12 to 18 months — with no confirmed kick in date.

Designated plastic bags at HK$0.11 per litre. Photo: GovHK.

Edwin Lau of The Green Earth said he believes the scheme “definitely does not require this much time” to prepare for.

“It has been discussed for over a decade, everyone is psychologically prepared,” he told HKFP. “Everything can be set up within a year… Hong Kong is well known for being efficient, why would it take so long?”

Lawmakers held a closed-door meeting with government ministers in March, Lau said, where they likely reached an agreement to delay imposing the tax. “Wong Kam-sing tabled the bill at the Legislative Council in January 2018… You need almost four years to reach a conclusion?” he said, referring to the city’s Environmental Protection Department chief.

The Green Earth also criticised the DAB — the dominant pro-establishment party in the legislature — for demanding the government give out free levy bags for the first year, causing a further delay to the scheme.

Meanwhile, Greenpeace spokesperson Leanne Tam said the delay was “beyond imagination.”

A landfill. Photo: GovHK.

“After waiting for 16 years for the rubbish tax [bill] to finally pass, the effective date for the law and even the basis on which to determine the charging date are all missing,” Tam said in a statement, adding that the government should not hand out free bags for more than three months during the preparation period.

Three steps, not one less

In addition to the tax, Lau said while using prepaid bags to impose a rubbish levy is a fairly common measure around the world, the government must also boost its advocacy work to educate Hongkongers on the importance of waste reduction and expedite plans to build the city’s third food waste processing plant.

Plastic water bottles. Photo: Friends of the Earth.

However the third phase of the Organic Resources Recovery Centre on Lantau Island is expected to complete only in mid 2030, according to a government estimate last year.

The government may also have sewage treatment plants process food waste, which has been demonstrated to be successful during a pilot scheme, Lau said.

With plastics, the authorities should also expand its centralised recycling scheme to all 18 districts from the current three.

“By doing all these three basic steps the amount of waste will be reduced progressively,” Lau said. “It can’t depend on just this law, it takes all three, not one less.”

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Selina Cheng

Selina Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist who previously worked with HK01, Quartz and AFP Beijing. She also covered the Umbrella Movement for AP and reported for a newspaper in France. Selina has studied investigative reporting at the Columbia Journalism School.