Curb on plastic bags a small but welcome step

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 November, 2007, 12:00am

Hong Kong should be a world leader in environmentally friendly practices such as recycling, given our limited options for dumping rubbish. Sad to say that the reverse is more the case and a crisis looms, with our few landfills nearing capacity.

In such circumstances, the supermarket chain ParknShop is to be applauded for its decision to invite customers to pay 20 cents for each plastic bag requested. The move goes only so far. Customers will be permitted to decline and take biodegradable bags free of charge. But the move will still act as a deterrent, especially as the bags will bear the words 'I am a plastic bag'. It will, in effect, mark such customers out as being environmentally unfriendly. The step is a small one that will have a limited impact on our rubbish woes but will help engender in the community a mentality that has been conspicuously lacking.

Legislation imposing a tax on plastic bags is being prepared and will take effect by the end of next year at the earliest. The government also has in place an expanding recycling programme in housing estates and for the past eight years been encouraging separation of some recyclable material into public collection bins.

We still produce more garbage per person than many other cities, however, proof that we have not yet developed the necessary mindset. Education is key to such a process, but this is worthless without mechanisms to steer us in the right direction. Laws are one way, although drafting and implementing them takes time. It is quicker for businesses to take the initiative, which is why ParknShop's move is welcome. Recycling is worthless without the involvement of the entire community and the supermarket's decision is in that spirit. By making all its customers think twice when shopping, it is convincing them that it is better for them to bring their own bags. The model is one that ParknShop's competitors and Hong Kong's other retail outlets should adopt.

But plastic bags are only a beginning. Much of what we buy has too much packaging, while few of us bother separating glass, cans, plastics and papers and take them to recycling points. Legislation may yet be necessary for this to happen. A process under which rubbish has to be sorted before it is collected is a widely used method elsewhere and this is sometimes coupled with fines to ensure compliance. There has to be a starting point, though, and it is good that ParknShop has taken the initiative in setting us on the right path.