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LCQ1: Full implementation of the plastic shopping bag charging requirement

     Following is a question by the Hon Tommy Cheung and a reply by the Secretary for the Environment, Mr Wong Kam-sing, in the Legislative Council today (June 3):


     The plastic shopping bag (PSB) charging requirement at the retail level was fully implemented on April 1 this year. Free distribution of plastic bags is banned at all points of retail sales of goods, and customers must pay a charge of no less than 50 cents for each plastic bag requested by them. Owing to food hygiene considerations, plastic bags used to carry foodstuff which is without packaging, in non-airtight packaging or chilled or frozen state are exempted from the charge. Also, plastic bags provided alongside services are exempted from the charge. Some members of the public have relayed to me that since the Government's publicity efforts are insufficient and the information it disseminated is confusing, both shop operators and customers generally do not understand the details of the PSB charging requirement, resulting in frequent disputes over PSB charging between them. In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:

(1) as a member of the public has relayed to me that he was charged a fee for a plastic bag provided to him by the shop operator which was used for carrying both foodstuff in non-airtight packaging and items not provided alongside services, whether the charging of the fee was mandatory under the PSB charging requirement; if so, whether the authorities have assessed if such a requirement will give rise to confusion, resulting in members of the public being overcharged and shop operators breaching the law inadvertently;

(2) as I have learnt that operators of small and medium shops generally have little understanding of the PSB charging requirement, whether the authorities will consider adopting a lenient approach in handling non-compliance cases during the initial stage of the implementation of the PSB charging requirement; if they will, of the general handling approach and procedures; if not, the reasons for that; and

(3) whether the authorities will step up publicity on the PSB charging requirement, in particular by explaining to operators of small and medium restaurants as well as market traders the scope of the PSB charging requirement so as to allay their doubts; if they will, of the details; if not, the reasons for that?



     The first phase of the Environmental Levy Scheme on Plastic Shopping Bags, which was launched in 2009, applied to some 3 500 chain or large outlets. In order to further address the problem of excessive use of plastic shopping bags (PSB), the PSB Charging has been fully implemented from April 1, 2015 to cover all retailers in Hong Kong.

     Under the amended Product Eco-responsibility Ordinance (Cap 603) (the Ordinance), all retailers in Hong Kong, irrespective of the scale of operation and business nature, have to charge customers not less than 50 cents for each PSB provided in retail sales of goods, save for situations where there is exemption. The PSB charge is to be retained by the shops. Under the Ordinance, businesses which provide PSBs in offering services are not required to charge for PSBs.

     Furthermore, certain types of food, drink or medicine for human or animal consumption (collectively as "foodstuff") are entitled to exemption for food hygiene reasons. Specifically, PSBs that contain only foodstuff in frozen or chilled state or in non-airtight packaging are exempted from the PSB charge.

     My reply to Hon Tommy Cheung's questions is as follows:

(1) As I have explained above, foodstuff in non-airtight packaging are entitled to exemption, and retailers are not required to charge customers for providing PSBs to carry only such items. However, if the same PSB also contain items which are not entitled to exemption, the PSB should be charged in accordance with the Ordinance. Nonetheless, for a take-away meal where eating utensils and sauces provided by a restaurant are put in the same PSB, the exemption will still apply as such utensils and sauces are ancillary items of the take-away meal.

     The exemptions under the Ordinance adequately cater for the daily needs of the general public and the common trade practices of the businesses, and strikes a balance between food hygiene concerns and environmental protection. The exemptions had been vetted and approved by the Legislative Council before they were finalised for implementation. When members of the public shop at supermarkets and similar outlets, it is common that purchases would cover both items entitled to exemption and those not entitled to exemption at the same time. Allowing retailers to provide free PSBs under such situations would likely undermine the effectiveness of the PSB charging measure.

     The PSB Charging has been implemented for two months, whilst members of the public have gradually adapted to the new requirement. I believe that the community at large adopts a reasonable approach in implementing the legislative requirements. Nonetheless, the simplest and most direct way is to "Bring Your Own Bag" while you shop. Apart from saving the PSB charge, one would also help reduce the use of PSBs and protect our environment.

(2) The scope of the PSB Charging has been extended from some 3 500 retail outlets under the first phase to over 100 000 retail points in the territory, and together with the new exemptions, it would be necessary for the general public and retailers to adapt to the new arrangement. Therefore, in the first month of the implementation of the PSB Charging, we had adopted an educational and publicity-based approach by giving verbal warnings and on-site explanations of the legal requirements to retailers who were found to have contravened the requirements. Since May 1, the Environmental Protection Department (EPD) no longer give prior warnings but would take immediate enforcement action against any contraventions, by issuing a $2,000 fixed penalty notice or initiating prosecution proceedings.

(3) In supporting the retail trade to prepare for the implementation of the PSB Charging, we had kick-started extensive publicity and public education activities to raise the awareness of the retail trades since mid-2014. Some 60 briefings were held, covering around 70 trade associations of various retail and catering sectors, to provide information and explanations on the legislative requirements of the PSB Charging. In response to Hon Tommy Cheung's earlier suggestion, we conducted an additional briefing for the catering trade on April 20. We also collaborated with the District Councils and held briefings at each of the 18 districts to disseminate the key messages to local small retailers during the fourth quarter of 2014.

     In addition, during January to March 2015 before the implementation of the new measures, the EPD arranged visits to retail outlets in all the districts to distribute publicity materials and to promulgate the legislative requirements. A total of around 32 000 retail outlets were covered in our visits, including some 3 600 restaurants and 9 000 market stalls.

     During initial implementation between March and end of May 2015, the EPD had also arranged trained personnel to station at major retail outlets throughout the territory, such as major shopping malls, department stores, supermarkets, etc., to help explain the PSB Charging requirements to customers and to provide support to retailers.

     President, the key objective of the full implementation of the PSB Charging is to provide an economic incentive to reduce the indiscriminate use of PSBs by retailers and the general public, and to deepen the "Bring Your Own Bag" (BYOB) culture among members of the community, which in turn would contribute to effective waste reduction at source. Through continuous publicity and public education, coupled with enforcement actions, the general public and the trade have gradually adapted to the new measures in the first two month of its implementation. With the participation by the public and the concerted support of the trade, I believe PSB Charging will be implemented successfully, and "BYOB" will become part of Hong Kong's "Use less, Waste less" culture.

     Thank you, Mr President.

Ends/Wednesday, June 3, 2015
Issued at HKT 17:54


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