How much can HK$1 really do? All about Hong Kong’s new plastic bag levy and how residents have responded

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  • Hongkongers are now required to pay a higher fee for every bag they take at checkout, but some argue it is not nearly enough to make an impact on plastic waste pollution
  • Environmental NGO found that three-fourths of respondents surveyed in June said the charge should be raised to at least HK$2 to deter shoppers from using plastic bags
Yanni Chow |
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On average, the city produces more than 2,500 tonnes of plastic waste of which shopping bags are the most common type. Photo: Dickson Lee

Hot Topics takes an issue from the news and allows you to analyse different viewpoints on the subject. Our questions encourage you to examine the topic in-depth. Scroll to the bottom of the page for sample answers.

Context: Hong Kong’s plastic bag levy doubled to HK$1 each

  • Residents are now charged at checkout if they want plastic bags for chilled or frozen items

  • Operators pocket the fee for each of the estimated 170 million plastic bags they supply to shoppers every year

From December 31 last year, Hongkongers started paying HK$1 for each plastic bag they take at supermarkets and wet markets.

All operators would be given a one-month grace period to comply with the new rule, said Bruno Luk Kar-kin, the deputy director of environmental protection. Government workers posing as shoppers would carry out spot checks on enforcement for three months after the levy took effect.

“During the first month’s grace period, we will give advice and verbal warnings to [supermarkets] breaking the law,” he said last month.

Offenders are subject to a HK$2,000 fine, but the penalty can go up to HK$200,000 for repeat violations.

According to the government, in 2020, 2,312 tonnes (2,548 tons) of plastic were disposed of daily in landfills. Shopping bags are the most common plastic waste.

Last October, the Legislative Council amended the Product Eco-responsibility Ordinance to increase the plastic bag levy to HK$1. This was up from 50 cents. It was the first increase since the law came into effect in 2009.

Under the stepped-up regulations, certain previously allowed exemptions have been scrapped. Residents are charged at the checkout if they want plastic bags for chilled or frozen items, but they do not need to pay for those used for takeaway food or loose fresh goods.

Operators keep the collected fees. According to Luk, this is because the government does not have enough workers to monitor and gather the money from the more than 100,000 shops required to implement the charge. He called on them to use the money for the environment.

Supermarkets can continue to freely supply plastic bags at their produce or meat sections. But Luk urged the public to follow a general rule of “one purchase, one bag”.

Staff writers

Question prompts:

  • Why did the government change this levy? Explain using Context and your own knowledge.

  • To what extent do you agree that shop operators should keep the plastic bag fees they collect? Explain using your own knowledge.

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Cartoon

Question prompts:

  • Do the fish in the cartoon look “assured” by the increased plastic bag levy? Explain.

  • Based on News, how is the increased levy likely to affect the fish’s future?

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News: Hongkongers question new HK$1 levy on plastic bags as some shoppers are caught off guard by the new policy

  • Some residents say they already bring their own bags, while others feel “desensitised” to the existing cost and have no plans to stop using them

  • A local NGO suggests authorities distribute more non-woven bags to low-income families

Some Hongkongers have questioned the effectiveness of doubling the government’s levy on plastic bags to HK$1 after a few shoppers were caught unaware.

Signs were placed in the self-checkout and cashiers’ areas of stores to remind shoppers they would have to pay more for plastic bags and could no longer receive them for free when buying pre-packed produce or meat.

Among residents saying they were unaware of the new regulations was homemaker Catherine Xu, 52, who was shopping at upscale supermarket chain City’super.

“I had no idea about the charge. I don’t feel its effect either,” she said. “I tried to bring my own bag when the scheme started, but I’ve gradually given up and become desensitised to it.”

Some shoppers say the HK$1 fee for each plastic bag is not enough to deter them. Photo: Elson Li

Some shoppers said they felt the levy was useless and would not deter people from using plastic bags.

“I use those shopping bags in place of garbage bags at home,” social worker Louis Leung said. “I won’t be deterred until the levy is increased to HK$10. Now, HK$1 is nothing.”

Online store owner Dorothy Wong, 40, said she felt the levy would not make a difference and taxing people was not the right way to protect the environment.

“I bring my own bags, and I bring my own boxes most of the time when buying takeaways. But I do it because I feel a responsibility to do so,” she said.

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“Hong Kong is a rather affluent society. Monetary punishment doesn’t work. But if increasing the charge can encourage people to start buying unpackaged or loose food products, it is not a bad thing.”

Local NGO the Society for Community Organisation (SoCO) said it did not support the increased charges, but the fees could remind people to use less plastic.

“Low-income families are already very frugal [in using plastic bags] ... They have changed to using non-woven bags,” said Sze Lai-shan, the organisation’s deputy director. She also suggested authorities distribute more non-woven bags to those in need.

Staff writers

Question prompts:

  • Identify TWO reasons some Hongkongers felt unaffected by the HK$1 levy. To what extent do you agree with these explanations?

  • What does SoCO’s opposition to the raised levy reflect about the city’s low-income families? Using News and your own knowledge, explain TWO ways the government could address these concerns.

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Issue: Increase plastic bag levy to HK$2, green group urges

  • Greeners Action points to a survey that estimates supermarkets hand out more than 170 million shopping bags each year

  • Environmental group conducted field studies at 50 supermarkets in Hong Kong last June

A charge on plastic shopping bags should be increased to at least HK$2, a Hong Kong environmental group has said.

Greeners Action conducted field studies at 50 supermarkets in Hong Kong from June 13 to June 23 and found some stores had “indiscriminately” distributed plastic bags without making consumers pay the fee.

Based on its findings, the NGO deduced that all 694 supermarkets in Hong Kong were distributing about 170 million plastic bags every year. The group said this amount could cover an area as large as 125 Victoria Parks, which is a 19-hectare park in Causeway Bay.

Angus Ho, the executive director of Greeners Action, reveals the findings of a survey about supermarket plastic bag usage at a press conference. Photo: Dickson Lee

Greeners Action also found that three-fourths of 771 respondents surveyed between June 21 and June 27 said the current levy should be increased to at least HK$2 to deter consumers from using plastic bags.

“We think that the proposed increase in the plastic bag levy was too lame and almost of no use,” executive director of Greeners Action Angus Ho Hon-wai said. “We were surprised by the findings because 41 per cent of the respondents agreed to raise the levy to HK$5.”

On average, the city produces more than 15,000 tonnes of municipal solid waste per day, consisting of roughly 4,200 tonnes of paper, 2,500 tonnes of plastics and 3,500 tonnes of food waste, with shopping bags being the most common type of plastic waste.

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According to statistics from the Environmental Protection Department, the use of plastic shopping bags declined by about 80 per cent in the first year following the introduction of the levy, but has since rebounded.

“More than a decade ago, Hong Kong was so advanced because other countries did not even have such laws to regulate plastic bags. It was effective,” Ho said.

In Britain, a plastic bag fee is also collected directly by stores with a strong expectation that money raised will go to environmental causes. But retailers in Ireland must pass on the levy to the government for every bag sold.

Ho added that Canada would implement a ban on manufacturing and importing single-use plastics by the end of this year. “I think the [Hong Kong] government should consider a universal ban too,” he said.

Staff writers

Question prompts:

  • Based on Context, News and Issue, should the government further increase the charge on plastic bags? Explain THREE reasons to support your stance.

  • Using Issue, Glossary and your own knowledge, suggest THREE steps Hong Kong should take next to address the plastic waste problem.

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Sample answers

Context:

  • Why did the government change this levy? Explain using Context and your own knowledge. This change was implemented because plastic waste is harmful to the environment and to our health. In 2020, Hongkongers disposed of 2,312 tonnes of waste plastic in landfill sites every day, and plastic bags are the main type of plastic waste

  • To what extent do you agree that shop operators should keep the plastic bag fees they collect? Explain using your own knowledge. I disagree because the plastic bag fees should be collected by the government to guarantee that it will be put to good use for the environment. Letting the operators keep this money does not ensure it will be used well. (accept other reasonable answers)

Cartoon:

  • Do the fish in the cartoon look “assured” by the increased plastic bag levy? Explain. No, it seems as if their “hallelujah” is sarcastic because their faces look quite unhappy and there is so much waste surrounding them already, including old tires, disposable takeaway containers and plastic chemicals.

  • Based on News, how is the increased levy likely to affect the fish’s future? The increased levy is likely to have little effect on the fish’s future since the fee is so small that it won’t deter people from using plastic bags. Also, the plastic pollution problem is already so great, and the government needs to be doing much more from all angles to tackle this problem.

News:

  • Identify TWO reasons some Hongkongers felt unaffected by the HK$1 levy. To what extent do you agree with these explanations? The amount of the increased levy is still not high enough to deter customers from buying plastic bags. / They did not know about the charge. / Some already have a habit of bringing their own bags and boxes. (any two)

  • What does SoCO’s opposition to the raised levy reflect about the city’s low-income families? Using News and your own knowledge, explain TWO ways the government could address these concerns. The city’s low-income families are likely not making enough money to support their basic needs, let alone an increased plastic bag fee. They are the ones who will be most affected by the increased levy. Also, many are already using non-woven bags, so the government should distribute more of these to people in need. They could also work with community groups such as SoCO to better educate low-income groups about using less plastic bags. (accept other reasonable answers)

Issue:

  • Based on Context, News and Issue, should the government further increase the charge on plastic bags? Explain THREE reasons to support your stance. Yes. According to the survey, more than half of the interviewees agreed to raising the fee to at least HK$2, so it will be more effective reducing single-plastic use. Forty-one percent even said HK$5 would be acceptable. In News, one citizen said he wouldn’t feel affected by the levy unless it was increased to HK$10. According to the SoCO deputy director in News, many low-income families already use non-woven bags, so if the government continues providing these eco-friendly totes to those in need, the fee can be raised further to have a stronger impact on higher-income groups without affecting poorer people too much. Ultimately, this will help reduce the roughly 2,500 tonnes of plastic waste produced in Hong Kong every day and create a more sustainable future for the city. (accept other reasonable answers)

  • Using Issue, Glossary and your own knowledge, suggest THREE steps Hong Kong should take next to address the plastic waste problem. The government should ban all plastic bags and require shops to distribute biodegradable ones instead. / It should collect the plastic bag levy and use the money to create better recycling and composting facilities in the city as well as cleaning up the water bodies around Hong Kong. / It should create more educational programmes to show citizens why it is important to reduce plastic use. / It should stop importing plastic products entirely. / It should create a plan to continually increase the plastic bag levy over 5 years, after which it will be completely banned. (any three; accept other reasonable answers)

Get the word out

monetary punishment

a penalty that must be paid with money when a person or group has broken a law

plastic bag levy

an environmental scheme to reduce the use of plastic shopping bags in Hong Kong. In 2009, the Environmental Protection Department asked about 3,000 retail outlets to start charging 50 cents per bag. This was extended to all shops in 2015, following a three-month public consultation. Legco doubled the charge to HK$1 per bag in October 2022.

plastic bag levies outside Hong Kong

Taiwan banned retailers from giving shoppers free bags in 2002. It announced in 2018 that it would introduce a blanket ban in 2030 on plastic bags, as well as disposable utensils and cups. Mainland China implemented a plastic bag levy in 2008, charging 20 fen (23 HK cents) per bag. South Korea banned supermarkets and shopping malls from giving out plastic bags in 2018. Macau started charging 1 pataca (97 HK cents) per plastic bag in 2019. It will stop importing disposable plastic tableware from January 1. Japan charges shoppers between 2 and 10 yen (11 to 59 HK cents) based on the bag’s use and size.

Product Eco-responsibility Ordinance

operates and implements Hong Kong’s producer responsibility schemes (PRS). The ordinance was enacted in July 2008. Its schemes include the plastic bag levy scheme, the PRS on proper disposal of waste electrical and electronic equipment, as well as the PRS to promote recycling glass drink containers.

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