Extension of plastic bag levy can educate people about cutting waste

Edwin Lau says extending the plastic bag levy to all retailers will go a long way towards nurturing Hong Kong people's habit to produce less waste

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 October, 2013, 5:25pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 October, 2016, 5:45pm

There is a Chinese saying that, for any consequences there must be a reason. It applies well to the severe waste crisis Hong Kong is facing today. In this case, the consequences are landfills that are filling up faster than we expected; the reason is our attitude to waste, from large pieces of furniture right down to shopping bags.

Leaving aside electronic waste or waste from trade shows and exhibitions, which can be difficult to handle and process, it is hard enough for individuals to "reduce, reuse and recycle" everyday objects. It requires the relevant industries to work together and develop eco-friendly business practices, given that legislation is not yet in place.

But there is one area where individuals have been able to act - in the use of plastic shopping bags. The first phase of the bag levy, introduced in July 2009, has achieved significant reductions (some 90 per cent). Now, the government has put forward to the Legislative Council draft legislation for the second phase, which will cover all retailers. Currently, only chains or large supermarkets, convenience stores and personal health and beauty product stores are included in the scheme.

We need to get more legislators to support the bill, which aims to further reduce the use of shopping bags. This is, I believe, a practical way to help the public get used to the idea of recycling, and to learn to avoid creating excess waste. If we can reduce the waste we produce, then other waste management practices, such as recycling and deciding how to dispose of our waste, don't even need to be considered.

To make the scheme practical for all retailers, especially small shops, the government is proposing to allow them to keep the levy collected from customers. Hong Kong people might not be particularly eco-friendly but there's no doubt they are smart and careful with their money. So, it shouldn't take long before people are encouraged to use their own bags for all their shopping, in order to avoid paying the 50-cent levy per bag.

To avoid potential legal challenges, the government has to treat all stores - big or small - in the same way when seeking to extend the current legislation. However, I am sure the administration and social sector will encourage retailers, especially large chain stores, to donate the levy to worthy social causes, including environmental education on waste reduction.

The proposed legislation is clearly not a means for the government to collect more taxes, given that retailers would keep the levy. In this way, there is a high chance that it could be redistributed to support many non-governmental organisations.

However, if legislators insist that all retailers need to hand over the levy to the government, it will end up in a general pool, and worthy causes could potentially miss out.

Extending the current legislation will ensure a level playing field for all retailers.

After all, society should be moving forward with better environmental legislation and policies that will help establish green habits and attitudes for everyone to manage the planet sustainably for future generations.

Edwin Lau Che-feng is director of general affairs at Friends of the Earth (HK). www.foe.org.hk