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Dr. Anthony Ma: Engineer sets out to cure environmental ills
  • <p>“The increasing environmental awareness of the Hong Kong public serves as an impetus for the growth of environmental engineering.”</p>
  • <p>“The increasing environmental awareness of the Hong Kong public serves as an impetus for the growth of environmental engineering.”</p>

“The increasing environmental awareness of the Hong Kong public serves as an impetus for the growth of environmental engineering.”

Jul 2014

Just like every developed city, Hong Kong has its fair share of environmental ills: the air is barely breathable at times; the landfills will soon reach a saturation point; the public has split opinion on how to secure a stable electricity supply in the future. However, Dr. Anthony Ma Yiu-wa, Principal Consultant of the Environmental Management Division of the Hong Kong Productivity Council, believes that the city has every potential to resolve the environmental conundrums one by one, as long as society has the will to do so.

Environmental problems are intricate and thorny: they are not simply technical matters, and a balance has to be struck since many factors, such as economic structure, infrastructure and human behaviour, are at play. “Environmental professionals bear the responsibility to show the public the full picture of different environmental problems,” Dr. Ma said. “We are tasked with developing solutions and setting priorities.”

Joining the Hong Kong Productivity Council in 1991, Dr. Ma has accumulated decades of experiences in supplying government departments and local businesses with advice and solutions on environmental problems. However, Dr. Ma said he joined the profession by chance: “In my times, no degrees on environmental engineering, environmental management were offered at any university in Hong Kong, so many of us have academic backgrounds in other disciplines.”

After obtaining a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Hong Kong in 1988, Dr. Ma landed a job at a U.S. water engineering firm. Aiming to expand to the Far East, the company, which provided desalination technologies, set up a regional office in Hong Kong, and Dr. Ma was the first engineer hired. The first job had a lasting impact on Dr. Ma, as it inspired interest in water management in him, motivating him to specialise in areas such as water pollution control and water purification.

Many may have forgotten that Hong Kong was once plagued by polluted water, as factories used to discharge a vast amount of effluents. “Environmental problems align with the cycle of urban development. Around the world, water pollution is usually the first environmental problem to be encountered,” said Dr. Ma. It is then followed by air pollution and waste management. The cyclical nature of pollution and other environmental hazards means that environmental professionals should not only cultivate specialist knowledge in one area, but to branch into other areas as well.

In recent years, food waste has been a hot-button issue in Hong Kong, garnering the attention across different sectors. Hong Kongers produce a staggering 3,600 tonnes of food waste per day, with most of it sent to the landfills. Many individuals are endeavouring to lower the amount of food waste, such as food cycling and promoting composting, but Dr. Ma pointed out that these undertakings alone cannot solve the problem. “There are about 30 organisations which collect unwanted food and make lunchboxes for people in need,” said Dr. Ma. “Food recycling is an admirable cause, but it can only handle 0.1 percent of the total food waste in Hong Kong.”

A sustainable food waste management strategy cannot wait. Hence, the government has been planning to build two plants in Siu Ho Wan and Sha Ling, which will be able to convert food waste into biogas, a mixture of gas which can generate electricity. While the new technology offers opportunities in handling food waste, it takes the government years, or even decades to build such facilities, each can only handle about seven percent of Hong Kong’s food waste. And the operation cost will be high as well.

Dr. Ma advocates a decentralised approach and is developing a technology to produce biogas in smaller plants. Such plant can be situated in an industrial estate, or even inside an industrial building in the urban area. “For example, if one plant that can handle five to ten tonnes of food waste is built in Tai Po Industrial Estate, it will be able to handle the food waste generated from all the food processing factories in Tai Po Industrial Estate plus some food waste collected from nearby households,” Dr. Ma explained. Dr. Ma’s team expects to complete the laboratory studies by this year and will set up a pilot system in Sheung Shui next year. The whole research project is funded by the Innovation and Technology Commission. Dr Ma’s idea, if applied successfully, will be a convenient way to handle food waste within the community, saving time and money.

The increasing environmental awareness of the Hong Kong public serves as an impetus for the growth of environmental engineering. “Not only are there professionals in environmental management, a lot of people are also eco-conscious and demand the city to do more,” Dr. Ma said. He also sees huge potentials for Hong Kong to export its environmental engineering expertise to mainland and other parts of the world. “Sustainable growth is integral to the environmental industry. It should not only focus on local affairs.” If all parties, including the industry and the government, can work together to develop the industry, the dream of seeing more environmental solutions developed by local engineers will be realised in not a too distant future.

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