Plastic bag levy can help get us thinking green

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 June, 2008, 12:00am

Hong Kong's limited space and rapidly filling rubbish tips should make our society one of the most environmentally conscious. Yet it is far from being one. Recycling is a rudimentary concept and government policies to encourage less waste generation are still at their formative stage. While we think of ourselves as innovative and forward-looking, in some areas we lag behind the mainland. A poignant example of that is the entry into force this week, north of the border, of a law banning ultra-thin plastic shopping bags and requiring shoppers to pay for all others.

Plastic bags have become a symbol of our waste problem. Their widespread use in our everyday lives makes them the most basic element in any approach to reducing waste generation. We each use about three a day, amounting to 8 billion a year. These add a veritable mountain to our three landfills. They are toxic to the environment and take many times longer than organic waste to disintegrate. Yet a government campaign to reduce use has had little impact. A survey by an environmental group determined that, more than two years after the then environment secretary, Sarah Liao Sau-tung, raised the idea, just 18 per cent of shoppers surveyed used their own bags. Lawmakers continue to fight over the proposal to levy 50 Hong Kong cents on each bag used - part of the Product Eco-Responsibility Bill.

Dr Liao's successor, Edward Yau Tang-wah, predicted last week that the Legislative Council would approve the tax next month. But continued disagreement among lawmakers about some points means it may have to wait until the next Legco session in October. Whether it becomes law this year remains a matter for debate.

There should be few questions about such a law. Hong Kong is unlikely to quickly develop an environmentally responsible mentality without government prompting. This can be done only through concerted action, of which legislation is an essential part.

Such is the approach taken by Taiwan, which in 2003 banned the free distribution of plastic bags as part of a policy to reduce waste. The mainland has followed suit; bags thinner than 0.025mm are now illegal and all others have to be bought. Authorities hope that, apart from cutting the number of bags handed out by 1 billion a day, the 4.8 million tonnes of oil used to make them will be saved.

The law in Taiwan has had considerable success, but how much the mainland law achieves depends on its implementation. The initial signs are not good, with little policing of shops or markets. If habits are to be changed, authorities have to back the new rules with the deployment of inspectors to enforce them.

There is some doubt about how much impact reducing the number of plastic shopping bags used will have on landfills. They constitute only a small amount of the waste we produce. They often have a second life as refuse and storage bags, and their elimination will increase the use of commercially produced plastic alternatives.

As persuasive as such arguments may seem, they are irrelevant to the central question of how we change our wasteful ways. Recycling remains a voluntary concept because of concerns about the financial impact on companies if they were required to recycle their goods, but making it compulsory is inevitable given the state of our landfills. Going the way of Taiwan and the mainland on bags is essential.

Lawmakers have to adopt the bag levy promptly. They have had enough time to debate it. They are holding up the development of a more environmentally aware society.