Partial exemption from bag levy for big stores

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 January, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 January, 2009, 12:00am

Department stores will be able to avoid charging a levy on plastic bags furnished to customers buying items other than groceries and health care products, a government source said yesterday.

The levy is being introduced to encourage customers to use fewer plastic carrier bags. The exemption will mean customers who buy clothes or toys in stores such as Sogo and Jusco will be able to avoid paying the 50 HK cent levy, while shoppers at the stores' supermarkets will be charged the levy.

The government hopes to introduce the levy by mid-year. But the Legislative Council must first approve regulations for the levy's implementation under the Eco-Product Responsibility Bill.

The bill, approved in July, will require customers to pay for plastic bags at shops such as supermarkets, convenience stores and outlets of beauty and health care product chains of a certain floor size and scale of operation and which sell food, medicine and hygiene products.

Department stores which devote more than half their floor area to the sale of items other than these could apply to have certain cashier counters - such as those in the parts of their stores selling levy-free items - exempted from charging for bags, the source, from the Environmental Protection Department, said.

However, shoppers who pay for levy-exempt purchases along with groceries and health products at a non-exempt cashier counter risk being charged the levy on all the plastic bags they use.

Caroline Mak Sui-king, chairwoman of the Retail Management Association, said the exemption could be a headache for such stores.

'If a customer buys food and pyjamas at the same time, either they will have to pay at separate cashiers to avoid paying a levy for the bag holding the pyjamas, or the department store will have to change their cashier computer system to avoid unnecessary charging,' she said.

A spokeswoman for Jusco said it was concerned that the arrangements could lead to complaints from customers confused by the fact some counters in its stores charged the levy while others did not.

The source acknowledged this could be a problem.

The exemption was intended to maintain a level playing field among retailers, the source said, since large parts of a department store sell goods the levy does not cover.

Ms Mak also criticised the government for putting the burden of enforcing the law on shops by fining them for failing to collect the levy, rather than customers for failing to pay it, even when customers refuse to pay.

The source said the government would not postpone introducing the levy, despite the global financial crisis, since it was intended to change people's spending habits. The levy would cost shoppers, in all, HK$200 million a year - less than 1 per cent of private consumption expenditure in 2007.

Key points

Implementation target: mid-year.

Levy: customers will pay retailers 50 HK cents for each plastic bag.

Number of retailers affected in the first year: 2,000.

Type of retailers affected: those who sell three categories of products in the same outlet - food and drinks; medicine and dietary supplements; personal hygiene and beauty products - and whose single store is more than 200 square metres or who operate at least five outlets.

Exemptions: cashier counters of department stores selling goods other than the three categories can apply.

Penalty for failure to collect levy: maximum fine of HK$200,000.