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Hong Kong eyes expanding plastic bag ban

By: Steve Toloken

May 9, 2013

HONG KONG — Hong Kong's government wants to expand its 4-year-old ban on free plastic shopping bags to cover the vast majority of retailers in the densely-populated city, saying the measure is needed to reduce a landfill space crunch.

The proposal from the city's Environmental Protection Department said the existing ban has cut bag use by at least 75 percent in the 3,000 largest supermarkets, convenience marts and drug stores the current law covers, and that public comments support expanding it to more stores.

"Excessive use of [plastic shopping bags] remains a serious problem in Hong Kong as many other retail outlets are still distributing PSBs to their customers as a matter of routine," EPD said in its proposal. "Their excessive use and their subsequent disposal is creating pressure on the already stretched landfill resources."

The Hong Kong Plastic Bag Manufacturers Association did not have a strong reaction to the proposal, saying its members have adjusted their business plans to make other higher-value products after several years of having their products targeted.

"The general response from our association is 'Life goes on, that kind of attitude,' " said Rickly Wong, PBMA executive vice president and sales director at Hong Kong based packaging firm Universal Plastic & Metal Manufacturing.

But Wong did repeat the results of a 2011 study from the association that said that while plastic shopping bag use dropped in Hong Kong after the ban, the overall use of plastic in bags continued to increase because consumers bought more garbage bags. They could no longer reuse as many shopping bags as trash bin liners, PBMA said.

"We found that the tonnage of our products have not been reduced," he said. "There's been a steady increase in the last few years."

The amount of plastic used in garbage bags in Hong Kong went up 63 percent, and for non-woven plastic bags, it increased 96 percent, while for traditional retail shopping bags, it fell 68 percent, the PBMA said.

But the EPD maintains that putting a fee on bags reduces their use by up to 90 percent, and it suggested there was room for further reductions because 96 percent of the 4.4 billion plastic shopping bags that go into the city's landfills each year come from businesses not currently covered.

The EPD's proposal is broad and covers most sales of physical products, regardless of where they happen. Beyond expanding to other retailers, it would also include service businesses, such as salons selling hair care products or tutorial schools selling books.

One of the biggest changes from the current ban is that businesses would be allowed to keep the 50 Hong Kong cents (6.4 US cents) fee they receive when selling a plastic bag, rather than giving it to the government as they must do now.

The EPD said it wanted to reduce the administrative burden on stores, particularly smaller establishments that would be covered for the first time, but it said it will urge all businesses to donate the bag sale proceeds to environmental causes.

The government also disclosed that the 2009 ban has raised much less money than initially estimated, bringing in about HK $26.5 million (US $3.4 million) a year to the city treasury, a fraction of the HK $200 million (US $25.7 million) initially estimated. It said it based that early estimate on a forecasted drop of 50 percent in bag use at covered retailers.

Hong Kong, a largely self-governing territory of China, has about 7.1 million residents.

The EPD proposal would also exempt bags that are critical for food hygiene, but it would cover the clear plastic bags that are currently given away to wrap frozen or chilled food.