By Farah Master
HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong boasts glittering skyscrapers, seamless transportation and billion dollar infrastructure projects, but it is struggling with a much more mundane problem: disposing of its trash.
The former British colony is grappling with a growing mountain of waste resulting from China's ban this year on imports of 24 types of unprocessed rubbish – part of an effort to upgrade its recycling industry and reduce pollution.
The Hong Kong government acknowledges its inability to cope with the problem, saying that it lacks the land to develop an effective recycling industry. Critics say, meanwhile, that the city has done too little to upgrade and develop its waste management system.
"Hong Kong is a rich city with third-world quality recycling," said Doug Woodring, founder and managing director of Ocean Recovery Alliance, a Hong Kong-based non-government organization. "It has been too easy to send unprocessed waste to China."
Until last year, Hong Kong exported over 90 percent of its recyclables to China. That all changed at the end of 2017 as the effects of the Chinese ban – which included Hong Kong despite its status as a special administrative region of China – started to be felt around the world.
Huge mountains of old newspapers, cardboard and office scrap have piled up on Hong Kong's docks over the past few months while plastic waste has been dumped into the landfills.
A city of more than 7 million people, Hong Kong deposits around two thirds of its waste into landfills - 5.6 million tonnes annually. Little is recycled.
Hong Kong's deputy director for environmental protection, Vicki Kwok, said in an interview that the densely populated city was unable to absorb all the recyclables due to a lack of available land in one of the world's most expensive property markets.
"We have to rely on exports and that makes us more susceptible, compared to other jurisdictions, to external market factors," she said.
Kwok said the government had announced multiple measures over the past few months to stymie the flow of garbage, including funding support to help upgrade local recyclers, and was prioritising waste reduction at the source by appealing to businesses and consumers.
Green groups say the measures will do little to alleviate pressure on Hong Kong as the local recycling industry is unable to process all the waste that used to be sent to China.
Woodring said the government was too reliant on expanding landfills as a means of disposing of trash rather than reallocating land for waste management.
"Hong Kong has the capability to build processing plants," he said, referring to recycling. "There is plenty of land. The land has just been misused and misallocated."
An average Hong Kong resident throws away around 1.4 kilograms daily, more than double that of Asian cities such as Tokyo, Seoul and Taipei, which have implemented extensive recycling programs, according to the government.
Food waste, which accounts for the bulk of total waste generated, amounts to some 3,600 tonnes each day - the equivalent of 300 double-decker buses.
The government is aiming to open a facility this year that would convert food waste into energy and usable resources. However, the total recycling capacity will be a maximum of 200 tonnes daily while a second phase starting operations in 2021 will process a maximum of 300 tonnes per day.
Kwok said the government was planning to expand three active landfills set to reach capacity starting next year.
Hong Kong, which has already filled up 13 landfills in its history, is planning to start charging consumers for what they throw out but implementation is unlikely to take effect in the coming two years, the government has said.
Landfill waste is typically highly toxic and can severely damage surrounding ecosystems. The planned expansion of the landfills is likely to further impact a growing number of residents in affected areas, green groups have said.
In the meantime, municipal waste continues to rise unabatedly, surging 80 percent over the past 30 years, while Hong Kong's population has grown 36 percent, according to the government.
The environmental group Green Earth estimates that Hong Kong throws 5 million plastic bottles into landfills each day.
Edwin Lau, executive director of Green Earth, said the government needed to put in resources to subsidise and manage the industry directly.
Hong Kong's recycling industry is dominated by private players that operate in a piecemeal fashion with overlapping logistics.
"The government has a role to tackle social issues such as the waste management issue," he said. "Just expanding the landfills to cope with more waste, that is really backward thinking."
(Reporting by Farah Master; additional reporting by Chermaine Lee and Wyman Ma; Editing by Philip McClellan)