Market blow to Hong Kong's green policy

Liang Hongfu

2007-12-11 00:55:18  China Daily      

The back tracking by one of Hong Kong's two major supermarket chains on its initiative to charge customers for plastic bags has dealt a serious blow to voluntary efforts by the private sector to improve the environment.

ParknShop last month briefly introduced a 20 HK cents levy for a plastic bag to cut down on the use of this pollutant that is getting on the nerves of many environmentaly conscious citizens. The company said that proceeds from the levy would go to charity. But to the surprise of many, the company unceremoniously cancelled the campaign less than a week after its launch, citing "public criticism".

The company did not elaborate. It can only be assumed that its patrons were not happy with the plastic bag levy although the amount was minimal by any standards. This would have caused great concern to ParknShop, or any other retailer for that matter, because its major competitor has continued to hand out plastic bags free of charge.

It would be unfair to criticize ParknShop for abandoning its worthy and charitable initiative. But it is fair to question the commitment and seriousness of the Hong Kong public in environmental protection.

To be sure, the patrons of ParknShop who complained about the plastic bag levy constitute a small and limited segment of the general public. But their objections are a troubling reminder that asking people to voluntarily give up some small convenience in their lives for the good of the environment can be a much more daunting task than we may have believed.

The problem, obviously, does not arise from any lack of public education. In fact, the damage that the lowly plastic bags can do to our environment has caught the public's attention since the government raised the issue several months ago.

Of course, the usefulness of plastic bags in our daily life cannot be ignored. In most cases, they simply cannot easily be replaced by the so-called bio-degradable alternatives, such as paper bags. But disposing an average 23 million plastic bags each day clearly indicates over-usage of this environmentally harmful item.

Previous calls for constraint in the excessive use of plastic bags by environmental groups have largely been ignored. Experience in other countries, notably Ireland, has shown that a small tax can achieve great results in cutting down on the use of plastic bags.

The Hong Kong government has proposed to introduce a 50 HK cents tax on plastic bags. It is in the process of drafting the Product Eco-responsibility Bill to establish the legal framework for the levy.

In response to ParknShop's failed plan, Hong Kong's secretary for the environment Edward Yau Tang-wah was reported to have said that more work should be done when introducing environmental policy. "When working on environmental policy, we really need to do more preparation," he said.

In the case of the ParknShop incident, I do not believe that Hong Kong people do not care about the environment or they cared too much about the levy. What annoyed them, I believe, was that other people continued to get plastic bags free to foul the environment by shopping at the other supermarket chain.

Whatever the reason, the short-lived ParknShop campaign has driven home the point that any environmental policy must be backed by strong legal muscle. To improve Hong Kong's environment, which is seen by many people to be deteriorating rapidly, the government must have the resolve to introduce tough regulations to discourage polluters. As long as those regulations are seen to be fair and equitable, the public will support them.