Plan A is now formally off the table, providing a period of forced review and reflection. I would like to offer my own eight-point list of principles that should provide the foundations for any such Plan B.

First and foremost, waste management should be regarded as essential infrastructure, the same as roads, sewers, floor prevention or even education. It should be provided for the public good out of public coffers.

It is bizarre that we can spend billions of dollars building road networks that are hundreds of kilometres long, or colossal subterranean flood drainage systems, without a thought for separate charges while at the same time nickel-and-diming residents over plastic bags for waste disposal. The priority must be infrastructure that works seamlessly with invisible efficiency, not what size bags we use.
A Pricerite shop in Mong Kok sells bags designated for Hong Kong’s waste charging scheme on May 23. After lengthy deliberations and a brief trial run, the government shelved the scheme on Monday. Photo: Jelly Tse
My tax dollars contribute to the cost of putting Hong Kong children through school even though I have never used the Hong Kong school system. And they contribute to the cost of our hospitals, even though I hope never to need their services. I don’t resent having to contribute for such services because they are an essential public good.

Second, before punishing people for throwing out too much waste, it is the responsibility of our “result-oriented” government to develop a management system we can be proud of and which efficiently meets the community’s needs.

A government cannot responsibly make car ownership prohibitively expensive until it can offer the community an excellent public transport alternative. Only when we have a highly efficient and effective waste disposal infrastructure in place does it become reasonable to impose charges for excessive wastefulness.
Third, ensure the minimum amount of future waste enters the system in the first place. This is at the heart of circular economy initiatives and would provide appropriate sticks and carrots for all vendors to minimise packaging and commit to recovering goods once they have come to the end of their working lives.


Hi-tech vs low-tech: Hong Kong to lose its only drinks-carton recycler to a microelectronics centre

Hi-tech vs low-tech: Hong Kong to lose its only drinks-carton recycler to a microelectronics centre

Fourth, community-wide composting services should be used to ensure food waste does not end up in landfills. Small, clean composters could sit in all housing estates, be built into shopping complexes and be included in schools, hospitals and other large community facilities. If we create more compost than our community needs, there is certainly a large market across the border in Guangdong.
Fifth, we must double down on the campaign to reduce plastic waste. Dubai has launched major recycling initiatives, including reverse vending machines at retailers and service stations where shoppers return plastic bottles in exchange for discounts and other rewards. Bottle-gathering points at MTR stations and elsewhere could enable travellers to top up their Octopus cards or earn discounts. Hong Kong has already made some baby-steps in this direction.
Sixth, we should develop our system in collaboration with other governments across the Greater Bay Area. A city of Hong Kong’s size does not generate enough of certain kinds of recyclable waste to underpin profitable recycling businesses, but the region’s combined 87 million people almost certainly could do so.

Seventh, our government needs waste disposal solutions appropriate to urban and rural areas. The infrastructure needed for communities made up of 50-floor tower blocks will be different from that needed in more sparsely populated rural areas.


SCMP Explains: How does Hong Kong handle its waste?

SCMP Explains: How does Hong Kong handle its waste?

As someone who lives in one of those rural areas, the government’s Plan A left us with long and awkward journeys to waste disposal sites and impossible expeditions to recycling centres. It also seems clear it would have tempted many urbanites to make illicit dumping visits to the countryside.

Finally, there must be a careful balancing of carrots and sticks. There will undoubtedly be occasions when sticks are needed, but the government must recognise that it carries a clear responsibility to make the burden of compliance as light and simple as possible. Incentives should always be preferred to punishment.

For Lee’s “result-oriented” administration, the only outcome that can be measured as success must be a large fall in waste reaching our landfills and incinerators. That leaves one simple, brutal reality: despite the demise of Plan A, the deadlines for cutting waste remain as hard and unforgiving as ever.
The government needs to regroup, free itself of bureaucratic shackles that have cost us almost two decades and urgently start laying the foundations for a waste management system that can do us proud. Oh, and it needs to get the job done by 2026.

David Dodwell is CEO of the trade policy and international relations consultancy Strategic Access, focused on developments and challenges facing the Asia-Pacific over the past four decades