Plastic-bag law isn't rocket science

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 May, 2011, 12:00am


There should be nothing complicated about further weaning us off plastic bags. A good start has been made with the imposition of a 50 HK cent levy at 3,000 shops. Almost two years after its implementation, the scheme has been widely accepted and has reduced the number of bags littering our streets and waterways and being put into landfills. There is no need for more public consultation; the law as it stands is fine and has to now be extended to all 60,000 retail outlets.

So simple, and yet the government still doubts that it has the right formula. It has reduced the number of bags issued annually by 253 million and collected HK$25 million from the levy for environmental protection. Another round of consultation is under way, though, and there is a proposal that while the scheme be extended to all shops, operators should be allowed to keep the levy. This is good and bad: while it will be enlarged, the way will be open for abuse of the system.

By not requiring the levy to be passed on to the government, shops will no longer be accountable for the bags they hand out. In the interests of keeping customers, they are less likely to insist on imposing a charge. That could mean as many plastic bags being used and then discarded. A valuable revenue stream will be lost.

These are not matters to take lightly. There is still a long way to go. We threw away 4.4 billion bags last year, and because they are made of plastic they will take decades to disintegrate. Forcing us to be responsible and switch to bringing our own bags when shopping by making us pay is the best - and a proven - strategy.

The Environmental Protection Department wants a fee to be charged for handleless bags commonly available or handed out to put fruit, vegetables, frozen food and dairy products in. Bags provided for reasons of safety and hygiene will be exempt. There can be no complaints about such thinking. But if the good work done so far is to attain its goal, the law must be strengthened, not weakened.