Levy fails to halt shopping bags' disposal

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 13 May, 2011, 12:00am


The 50-cent levy imposed on plastic shopping bags in 2009 has cut the number of bags dumped in landfills only marginally, while increasing the disposal of reusable bags, according to the city's environment watchdog.

When the government introduced the levy at the end of 2009, environmentalists hailed the move as an important step towards reducing the almost five billion plastic shopping bags thrown away in the city each year.

However, figures released yesterday by the Environmental Protection Department (EPD) tell a different story. Landfill surveys conducted by the EPD since the levy was introduced show that Hong Kong consumers threw away 4.4 billion disposable plastic bags last year, only 253 million fewer - barely 5.7 per cent - than the year before the levy was imposed.

This means that each Hong Kong resident still disposes of an average of 1.7 plastic bags per day, a meagre improvement from 1.8 per day before the levy was imposed on shoppers by around 3,000 registered retail outlets.

The slight change contrasts sharply with supermarkets' claim that the number of bags handed out to shoppers has fallen by about 80 per cent since July 2009.

Also, Hongkongers threw away more reusable bags, most of them the so-called environmentally friendly shopping bags, discarding 17.7 million in 2010, up from 10 million in 2009. This has raised concerns that the levy might instead have worsened package pollution, as the reusable bags are made from plastic materials that are more durable and take longer to decompose than the disposable ones.

Dr Man Chi-sum, chairman of the Advisory Council on the Environment's waste subcommittee, said he was disappointed at the limited effect of the levy and blamed the scant coverage the levy scheme had received in the media.

He was also concerned about the emerging trend of more reusable bags being thrown away.

'It is time the government faced the abuse of reusable bags and we might need some channels to recover and recycle these bags, which are far more detrimental to the environment,' he said.

Man said many retailers outside the levy scheme were distributing these bags for free in the name of the environment, but they all underestimated their undesirable impact.

Apart from reusable bags, the EPD has yet to disclose figures for the number of rubbish bags disposed of at sites other than landfills, since some households reuse plastic shopping bags for trash.

The government findings came just as the EPD is preparing a public consultation on expanding the levy scheme.

One possibility is to ban the distribution of free plastic bags at all retail outlets except those granted an exemption.