Just two months after the Hong Kong government raised the possibility of taxing plastic bags, the topic has struck a nerve in the city of 7 million. Television airwaves are full of ads urging people to bring their own shopping bags, and major stores have pledged to reduce the number of bags they hand out by 15 percent.
The debate has moved surprisingly quickly from environmental circles to the front pages of local papers and to supermarket checkout lines. The city dubbed April 15 ``No Plastic Bag Day,'' and Hong Kong's two largest grocery chains said that about 80 percent of shoppers responded to the well-publicized event by bringing in their own bags or paying a fee to charity for each bag they used.
The pace has left the local bag industry on the defensive.
While saying the industry supports calls to reduce waste and conserve resources - including by using fewer bags - the Hong Kong Plastic Bag Manufacturers Association also suggested that government and environmental groups are scapegoating their products, rather than focusing on packaging waste in general.
In particular, PBMA questioned Hong Kong government statistics that plastic bags amount to about 12 percent of the household waste created in the city in 2004, or about 1.76 million pounds a day.
Based on the group's calculations, the figure more likely is a small fraction of that, about 360,000 pounds a day, said Rickly Wong, PBMA's executive vice president and sales director at Universal Plastic & Metal Manufacturing Ltd. in Hong Kong.
The industry group held its own public demonstration near a supermarket where environmental groups were staging their protest.
``We feel the problem of plastic bags has been greatly exaggerated,'' Wong said. ``Singling out plastic bags would not solve the problem. It's more to do with all packaging - paper packaging, plastic packaging.''
Eddy Ho, also a PBMA executive vice president and managing director of Hong Kong-based bag maker Mayor Packaging Enterprises (1968) Ltd., said the government should tax paper bags as well, if it decides to tax such packaging.
Environmental groups said they are not trying to eliminate the bag industry and said they plan to focus on broader packaging issues.
But the city's residents are among the biggest users of plastic bags in the world, each throwing away an estimated five a day. And Hong Kong, a small, densely populated enclave of China, is in danger of running out of landfill space in a decade, said Hahn Chu, environmental affairs manager with Friends of the Earth's Hong Kong office.
FOE argues that plastic bags should get attention because they are becoming more popular: Hong Kong residents throw away about 33 million a day, compared with 25 million five years ago.
It's that 33 million-bags-a-day figure that PBMA uses to challenge government figures. Wong said 33 million bags, assuming a typical weight of 5 grams, would amount to about 360,000 pounds of plastic bag waste a day, much less than government estimates.
A bag tax is not inevitable, even though the government has ineffectively relied on voluntary efforts for several years to reduce bag use. Hong Kong officials raised a tax possibility when they announced their budget plans earlier this year, saying that any bag tax would be part of a package of broader producer-responsibility legislation in 2007.
Still, local retailers are taking voluntary steps. The city's two largest grocery chains last month pledged to educate staff and customers and cut the number of bags they give out by 15 percent - or about 40 million bags each. Some smaller shops have followed suit, posting signs urging customers to help cut back on the number of plastic bags used.
Wong said PBMA recently reorganized, which hindered it from making a more forceful case to the government, but the association plans to draft a strategy to counter taxes and deal with packaging overuse, he said.
He said the government sends the industry mixed signals about how seriously it treats the packaging problem. Wong said there is little bag-recycling infrastructure in Hong Kong, yet last year the government refused PBMA's request for a grant to study boosting plastic bag recycling, Wong said.