About 100,000 retail outlets will face fines if they fail to charge customers for plastic shopping bags under a proposed extension of the levy scheme that will cover all goods retailers and bags except those issued for food hygiene.
The extension would affect all retailers regardless of size and type of business, but unlike the existing scheme, retailers will be allowed to keep the 50 cent levy, which will save them keeping records and sending the proceeds to the government.
Officials plan to introduce the amendments to the legislature next week, hoping to put into place an expanded scheme next year. Failure to comply with the new law will incur a fixed fine of HK$2,000.
Under the proposed extension, only retail transactions involving physical goods will be affected. Exemption will also be given to plastic bags used for foods which are not contained in airtight packaging. That means a lunch box can still be carried in a plastic bag for free.
But flat-topped bags currently offered free to customers to carry frozen food will be covered by the charge.
Green groups welcomed the changes but urged officials to step up enforcement and retailers to set up a fund for environmental protection with the proceeds. Since 2010, HK$94.6 million has been collected from consumers paying for plastic bags.
Caroline Mak Shui-king, chairwoman of the Hong Kong Retail Management Association, said the proposed extension had come three years late.
"Had the levy been made to apply to all retailers three years back, there wouldn't have been so much worry among the retail sector in the past [about the government's next move with the scheme]," she said.
Mak said she would encourage retailers to spend the levy revenue on environmental causes but did not say whether she thought they should make public their proceeds.
The existing scheme now covers about 3,000 retail outlets, mostly chains that sell food, personal care items and medicine simultaneously. This was criticised in the past by some retailers who said the levy unfairly targeted only some businesses.
Officials said the proposed changes address public concerns about packaging needs in terms of food hygiene but admitted there would not be a perfect solution to the issue.
"When it comes to drafting the law, there are limitations to covering all different situations," an environment official said on condition of anonymity.
He said the current levy scheme had successfully cut bag use by about 90 per cent at affected retailers, and that so far only one retailer had resorted to using paper bags to avoid the levy.
Since its introduction, there have been six cases of the levy law being breached, which included failure to collect the charge, to register as an affected retailer, and to display proper signs.