Exemption rules for the extended plastic bag levy scheme contain a flaw that could allow abuse, green critics said.
Under the extension - spelt out by the government yesterday and to be tabled in the legislature - about 60,000 retailers will be required to charge no less than 50 cents for every plastic shopping bag they hand to consumers.
Apart from conventional retailers like supermarkets and convenience stores, some service providers that also sell products - like hair salons - will be covered too. Retailers who fail to charge will be issued a fixed penalty ticket, instead of a court summons.
Exemptions will be given when plastic bags are used for food safety and hygiene reasons to hold food, drink, medicines or other items for human or animal consumption.
Environment officials have also included a principle that says a levy is not needed 'if a plastic bag is used to contain solely items which are not packaged in a way that they are securely segregated from the outside environment'.
Environmentalist Angus Ho Hon-wai, of Greeners Action, said this opened up a loophole for abuses, especially for some bakeries.
'It is like giving the bakeries licences to adopt individual and even double packaging. It will twist the spirit of the levy law,' said Ho, who favours a rule allowing only single wrapping without serious hygiene reasons.
The extension proposal, set out in a submission to legislators by the Environmental Protection Department, follows a drop of up to 90 per cent in bags issued by 3,000 prescribed retailers since the levy's first phase was introduced in July 2009.
But other retailers distributed about 6.7 per cent more bags in the year after the levy came in. An estimated 4.4 billion plastic bags were dumped at city landfills last year, including more than 316 million from bakeries and cake shops, 7 per cent more than the previous year.
A department spokesman confirmed that the new rule would allow double wrapping of fresh bread if the first layer was not properly sealed.
Other changes to the scheme include a provision that allows retailers to keep the levy proceeds instead of handing them to the government. The arrangement will minimise administrative costs incurred by the retailers and the government. But Ho hoped big retail chains would use the funds for environmental protection.
Bags without handles, now freely available in supermarkets, will also be levied in the future if they are not used only for fresh food storage. This will also apply if they are used to wrap frozen foods.
Officials believe that at present there is no serious abuse of reusable plastic shopping bags.
That's a wrap
Items covered under extended plastic bag levy:
Frozen or chilled food
Bags distributed at concerts
Bags used to wrap newspapers
Food, drink and medicine for human or animal consumption
Bags for carrying lunch boxes
Bags for non-pre-packaged bread sold in bakeries
Bags distributed by booth operators at exhibitions