More shops are using biodegradable bags, but some environmental groups say this could lead to more waste Major shopping chains and fast food outlets are switching to using biodegradable plastic carrier bags. Maxim's Group, Hong Kong's largest catering business, made the move in December, and Wellcome, the largest supermarket chain, is studying the feasibility of introducing them in its 240 stores. Restaurant chain Fairwood, bakery chains Yamasaki and Arome, and HSBC, Standard Chartered and Towngas are also using biodegradable bags. Environmental groups have given the move a mixed response, with some saying a switch to biodegradable bags could mean more plastic bags ending up in landfills as consumers make less effort to cut their usage. Kenneth Leung Mo-man, director of Pioneer Holdings, one of several suppliers of materials and technology to produce biodegradable plastic bags, said cost reductions had made them more commercially viable. 'Now degradable plastic bags only cost 5 per cent more than the ordinary ones,' he said. Using them would not add much to a shop's costs but could make it look good. 'One bakery chain actually tells us that there is more business after the switch, since this attracts some environmentally sensitive clients. I believe more and more retailers will make the switch because of market forces.' Plastic bags made with biodegradable materials will decompose in as little as two years. Ordinary bags take 100 years to break down. A spokeswoman for Maxim's Group, which serves nearly half a million people a day, said: 'Over 210 outlets of Maxim's Cakes and Maxim's MX are now using biodegradable carrier bags. Maxim's Group is also exploring the application of biodegradable plastic to garbage bags.' A Wellcome spokeswoman said: 'We are looking at different samples from different suppliers. We are looking at whether the bags are durable, and at the cost as well.' Edwin Lau Che-feng, acting director of Friends of the Earth, said: 'We don't really think that biodegradable plastic is suitable for retailers' carrier bags. It may encourage shoppers to think that they don't need to minimise their usage of plastic carrier bags any more. However, it is ideal for garbage bags.' Kwok Ying-ying, project officer for the Green Student Council, said it welcomed the switch but retailers needed to educate the public that biodegradable bags still had environmental costs. Almost 1,000 tonnes of plastic bags - the equivalent of three for every man, woman and child - are dumped in the city's four landfills every day, figures from the Environmental Protection Department show. Initiatives under way to address the problem include a voluntary agreement to cut plastic bag usage signed by 10 retail chains. Several store chains have launched a monthly no-plastic-bags day. Wellcome and Mannings have one every week. This is an edited version of an article by Liz Heron and Quinton Chan that appeared in the South China Morning Post on February 11. New Year drain on the planet Each Hong Kong family throws out an average of 30 lai see packets after Lunar New Year - that's 70 million in total. Other holiday habits that threaten the environment: using brand-new banknotes in lai see packets using excessive gift wrap discarding furniture and electrical appliances as part of the 'spring cleaning' tradition eating endangered species such as reef fish Around the world Each year, an estimated 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide - that's more than 1 million per minute. Billions end up as litter each year. Hundreds of thousands of sea turtles, whales and other marine mammals die by accidentally eating plastic bags. Plastic bags don't biodegrade, they photodegrade - breaking down into tiny toxic bits that contaminate the soil and waterways, and enter the food chain when animals accidentally ingest them.