Hong Kong aims to increase the charge for plastic carrier bags from the current HK$0.50 to at least HK$1 starting from December 31 – a hike welcomed by a green group that called the existing policy ineffective.

Plastic shopping bag charge levy sign
A sign at a shop reminding customers of the HK$0.50 plastic bag charge. Photo: GovHK.

Legislative procedures to discuss the adjustment of the Plastic Shopping Bag (PSB) Charging Scheme have already begun, the government said on Wednesday.

In addition to the price hike, the government has also proposed scrapping existing exceptions under which bags are currently given to customers for free. Under the adjusted scheme, plastic bags will not be handed out freely to customers purchasing frozen or chilled food items.

Exceptions will remain for the purchase of food without packaging or not fully contained in packaging, or “food and beverage takeaway items in non-airtight packaging.”

The increase marks the first time the plastic bag levy will rise since the scheme – aimed at discouraging the use of bags – was introduced in 2009. The policy first targeted supermarkets, convenience stores and cosmetics stores, before being expanded to all retailers in 2015.

sustainable council
The Council for Sustainable Development at a press conference in September. Photo: GovHK.

The Environmental Bureau’s Council for Sustainable Development (SDC) submitted a report to the government in April calling for the plastic bag levy to be raised from HK$0.50 to HK$2, among other recommendations aimed at controlling single-use plastics.

The suggestions were based on the Council’s public engagement exercise, which found that almost 60 per cent of respondents “agreed to imposing stricter control on single-use plastics items for alleviating the excessive use.”

According to the survey results, over a third of respondents were willing to pay more for the use of single-use plastics.

plastic packaging produce
A shopper walks by shelves at Wellcome. Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

The increase in the plastic bag levy will be “another step forward in Hong Kong’s work on waste reduction and recycling,” a government spokesperson said on Wednesday.

Insufficient discouragement

Environmental NGO Greenpeace said it “welcomed” the government “finally taking action” to raise the plastic bag charge.

“Tackling the lag and ineffectiveness of [the] existing policy, we hope the adjustment can contribute to an accountable reduction on using plastic shopping bags in Hong Kong,” Greenpeace campaigner Leanne Tam told HKFP.

She added, however, that “solely banning or adding extra charge on disposable plastic without providing a plastic-free alternative will only shift the usage to other disposable material, and cannot achieve the ultimate goal of reducing waste at source.”

plastic bags
File photo: Pexels.

Green groups had previously said the present HK$0.50 fee was inadequate for deterring customers from purchasing plastic bags.

“After several years of implementation, the 50 cents price tag per plastic bag has already been absorbed by the public, and no longer provides sufficient discouragement,” June Wong, Manager (Marine Pollution) at World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Hong Kong, said last year.

According to an April Legislative Council paper, the number of plastic shopping bags disposed of in 2015 – the first year that the levy scheme was fully implemented – dropped by 25 per cent. But the figure subsequently rebounded in the following years.

A survey by WWF last August found that most of the respondents who took plastic bags did so due to hygiene considerations. Other reasons included convenience and wanting to keep them for personal use.

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Hillary has an interest in social issues and politics. Previously, she reported on Asia broadly - including on Hong Kong's 2019 protests - for TIME Magazine and covered local news at Coconuts Hong Kong.