As told to Simon Parry
Last week in this column, the Plastic Bag Manufacturers Association argued against the proposed 50 cents levy on plastic bags given out by supermarkets. Today, Michelle Au Wing-tsz of the Friends of the Earth says the levy isn't perfect but is an important step forward.
Some people who consider themselves environmentally friendly are strongly opposed to the plastic bag levy. They have sent us e-mails and faxes and some say that if the levy is introduced, they will stop giving money to charity. One said he would go to the supermarket, get as many plastic bags as he could and save them at home to use after the levy was introduced.
The problem is that not all people in Hong Kong accept the polluter-pays principle. Traditionally, plastic bags have been free. People think it isn't their responsibility and believe it is the government's business. Many say they are worried about protecting the environment, but their concern is only in words and not actions. If you ask them to pay, they say 'no'.
We at Friends of the Earth support the levy. It won't solve everything but it is a step in the right direction and a first step towards getting people used to the polluter-pays principle. Hong Kong people use on average three plastic bags a day each, which amounts to more than 20 million plastic bags.
Judging from the experience in Ireland and Taiwan, we believe that we can decrease our use of plastic bags by up to 90 per cent in three to six months after the levy is introduced. People may go back to using more plastic bags later but we hope to maintain a decrease in use of around 50 per cent.
Plastic bags account for only about 3 per cent to 5 per cent of municipal solid waste in Hong Kong, but introducing this levy will change people's habits. We hope that it will change their mindsets and make them better understand the polluter-pays principle.
The levy will put a price tag on plastic bags. They will no longer be free - they will have a value. Unfortunately, when things are free, no one cares about them and no one cares about the waste they create because there's no payment involved.
Making people pay really is effective. We did a promotion for simply-packaged mooncakes recently and we charged 50 cents for every plastic bag we gave out. One customer came in and bought four boxes of mooncakes. At first they wanted one plastic bag for each box. When I said they had to pay 50 cents for each plastic bag, the reply was: 'Really? In that case I'll make do with one.'
There can be problems when it comes to implementing a levy of this kind. In Taiwan, for instance, where they banned plastic bags from all shops over two years, some retailers got around the law by handing out plastic bags for free in the street outside their shops.
What happened in Taiwan is a good lesson for Hong Kong. The levy was rushed in too quickly. In Hong Kong, we believe it should be introduced in phases - first in supermarkets and then in medium-sized shops and finally in small shops.
We don't think people will revert to using paper bags once the levy is introduced because the cost of using paper bags is very high. If one plastic bag costs 20 HK cents, one paper bag may be HK$2.
What we are concerned about is non-woven bags, which are very common and popular in Hong Kong. We are afraid that they will be used as an alternative to plastic bags. Biodegradable bags are also a problem because they use a lot of energy and resources in their production.
Our suggestion is that the government should impose this levy on all shopping bags, not just plastic bags. In five years some new material may be discovered that is cheaper than plastic bags and the problem will start over again.
We have plans to co-operate with pharmacy stores and wet markets to monitor their use of plastic bags before and after the levy is introduced.
The government's own survey found that although about 60 per cent of people agreed with the levy, about 30 per cent opposed it. But if everybody gets used to bringing their own shopping bags, the levy won't be a burden.
If people think 50 cents is expensive and unfair, they can bring their own bags.
Details of the Friends of the Earth's position on the proposed levy are available at www.foe.org.hk