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Free bag, or no free bag? That is the question as Hong Kong introduces plastic levy

An expanded plastic bag levy scheme starts on Wednesday, but are the city’s retailers ready?

“Do these items get a free bag?” asks the shopkeeper as she gestures to a tub of frozen chicken wings. Told by a reporter that they do, she points, incredulous, to a vacuum-sealed pack of Japanese enoki mushrooms and says: “Then what about these?”

The frozen food store in Wan Chai where she works is one of more than 100,000 retailers that will fall under the scope of an expanded plastic bag levy scheme. From Wednesday, their customers will have to pay 50 cents per bag, just as they do now at 3,300 retailers, most of them chain stores and supermarkets.

Government officials claimed the levy cut the number of plastic bags going to landfills by up to 90 per cent after its launch in July 2009. Unlike the initial scheme, the independent retailers affected by the expanded levy will not have to pass the cash to the government.

All plastic bags – including bags with plastic handles – will fall under the expanded levy scheme, unless the goods they carry fall under a myriad of exemptions listed by the Environmental Protection Department.

There will be no charge if a bag is needed for “hygiene reasons”, for example, or if it is part of a product’s original packaging.

Some retailers have switched plastic for paper bags before the levy kicks in.


“If you see some shops exploiting a grey area, as an informed consumer you have a choice of which store to buy from,” Secretary for the Environment Wong Kam-sing said yesterday as he visited stores in Tsuen Wan to promote the measure. “Depending on everyone’s consumer habits, we can still create an environmentally friendly culture.”

However, despite a massive push by the department to educate the public and advertise the expanded levy scheme, retailers small and large are anxious about full implementation.

A cashier at one high-profile retailer in Times Square, Causeway Bay, said the company had warned staff not to make more than three mistakes in bagging or face the sack. She said she was “very afraid” of making a mistake.

Retailers who breach the rules could be hit with a fixed penalty of HK$2,000 or even prosecuted.

A recent online survey of 500 Hongkongers by the World Green Organisation found that only 42 per cent of the respondents actually knew that the scheme applied to every retailer after April 1.

“I think the government can definitely do more to teach us how to follow this new levying … it really is quite confusing, especially when we have to explain it to customers, many of whom are old,” the shopkeeper in Wan Chai said.

She said she was not against the levy, but feared some of her elderly customers would not understand the purpose, refuse to pay the extra 50 cents and hassle them for free bags.

Johnny Lam, of Johnny’s Stationery Store in Wan Chai’s Tin Lok Lane, will have to charge a levy almost every time he gives out a plastic bag.

“It will be a bit inconvenient at first. To be honest, it will be particularly awkward forcing some of our regulars to pay 50 cents just for a bag,” Lam said. But he was hopeful the levy would deter those customers who “want bags for everything”, he added.

Such problems do not faze Wan Yau-kwong, manager of frozen meats company Kwong Lee Trading. Wan said many customers already did without plastic bags by bringing their own, or wrapping meat in newspaper.

He has not decided what to do with the takings from the levy, which stores are allowed to keep.

“If it’s a lot of money, we may set up a charity box; if it’s not a lot we might just keep it,” he said.

At Golden Eagle Dry Cleaning, in Causeway Bay, a staff member said the levy would have little effect, as bags used in providing a service were exempt. Few customers would need another plastic bag to put their bagged, dry-cleaned clothes into, she said.

“Many people will just give out the bags secretly, but we won’t … we don’t want to take the risk of being fined by the government,” said the woman, who helped run the store.

Big companies were also preparing for the levy. Aeon Stores, which owns the Jusco supermarket chain, had prepared a “Q&A worksheet” to help frontline staff.

A.S Watson, which owns ParknShop, Watsons and Fortress, said all store managers had attended briefing sessions and had provided clear training and guidelines to staff.

Additional reporting by Jennifer Ngo

Source URL (modified on Mar 29th 2015, 11:30am):

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