Half of Hong Kong retailers flout plastic bag levy in investigation by green group

Greeners Action says findings of probe reflect lax enforcement and management of levy scheme

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 July, 2016, 8:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 July, 2016, 12:12pm

More than half of 100 retail outlets inspected by a green group across the city gave out plastic bags to customers for free, flouting the rules of a mandatory levy implemented last year.

Greeners Action said the findings of its investigation reflected the government’s lax enforcement and management of the levy scheme since it was expanded to cover nearly all retailers across Hong Kong last April.

Last month the group launched an undercover operation to inspect 100 hardware, stationery, fashion and footwear stores along with shops selling household goods, accessories and miscellaneous items.

At least 55 of these retailers were caught doling out plastic bags to customers for free, and 52 of them even offered them willingly without the customer having to ask.

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“Oh sorry, we’ve just ran out, I’ll need to phone my boss to ask for more plastic bags. No, no, it’s not your fault,” one handbag store saleswoman was caught on video saying as she scoured the shop for a bag for an undercover Greeners Action staffer who had requested one. Asked if it was free, the saleswoman replied with a resounding: “Yes, no charge”.

All retailers, from street hawkers to fashion chains, are required to charge at least 50 cents for a plastic bag unless their goods fall under exemptions such as fresh food and laundry. Proceeds are kept by the retailer but the government “encourages” vendors to donate them to “support environmental or other charitable causes”.

While 72 of the retailers inspected by the group were shops, 28 of them were street vendors. The non-compliance rate for the former was 40 per cent but for the latter the figure was a whopping 93 per cent.

“The extended plastic bag levy has been in effect for more than a year. This investigation shows retailers are easily flouting what is required under the law, by giving out bags for free,” said the group’s executive director Angus Ho Hon-wai.

“The Environmental Protection Department’s enforcement is currently too lax. Many retailers can now just adopt a ‘could not care less’ attitude.”

To prevent the levy scheme becoming a “toothless tiger”, Ho urged the department to immediately start stepping up promotion of the levy and to issue timely warnings to those who breached the law.

The group said it had set up its own telephone hotline – 5126 5776 – for consumers to report non- compliant retailers.

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The levy scheme, which originally targeted some 3,000 shops including supermarket chains, convenience stores and department stores, was extended to cover more than 100,000 on April 1 last year.

The department said it had inspected 60,000 retail outlets since full implementation which included various types of shops, stalls and exhibits. As of Tuesday, a total of 237 businesses had been slapped with fixed penalty notices of HK$2,000 each, representing less than 0.4 per cent of those inspected.

A department spokesman said it would study the green group’s findings, continue to carry out publicity and public education work and from time to time “adjust the focus of its enforcement work”.

He added that since the scheme had been expanded to cover all retailers, plastic bags disposed of at landfill had dropped by 25 per cent from 5.2 billion in 2014 to 3.9 billion in 2015.