【明報專訊】THE government has launched a three-month consultation exercise about the full extension of the Environmental Levy Scheme on Plastic Shopping Bags (Levy Scheme). The first phase of the Levy Scheme has produced notable results. Citizens have used many fewer plastic shopping bags (PSBs). That shows they generally support the Levy Scheme.
Under the first phase of the Levy Scheme (which came into effect in July 2009), about 3,000 retail outlets (supermarkets, convenience stores and medicare and cosmetics shops) are required to charge their customers a levy of 50 cents a PSB provided to them. Since the levy was imposed, they have distributed about 80% fewer PSBs.
Though many fewer PSBs have been used since the about 3,000 outlets began to charge the levy, the number of PSBs distributed by other outlets increased by 270 million (6.7%) between mid-2009 and mid-2010.
The government proposes that the Levy Scheme be extended and include the about 60,000 retail outlets in the territory. In the first phase, registered outlets are required to charge their customers 50 cents a PSB and pay to the government their levy incomes. However, in the second, retail outlets should keep their levy incomes instead of paying them to the government.
Most of the retail outlets required to charge the levy in the first phase belong to major supermarket or convenience store chains. As their operations are computerised, it is not hard for them to comply with the levy requirements without incurring high administrative costs. However, 90% of the 60,000 retail outlets the second phase would involve are small or medium enterprises (SMEs). Their operations are such that they may have difficulty doing accounts of their levy incomes. Furthermore, if they are required to put their levy incomes into the public purse, the government will have to do a lot more administrative work. Given SMEs' limitations and the possibility of incurring huge administrative costs, it is appropriate to have retail outlets keep their PSB incomes.
In our view, the first phase of the Levy Scheme has proved successful not just because PSBs cost 50 cents apiece. Citizens have gradually changed their shopping habits. That is a factor one must not ignore. Awareness of conservation has markedly increased in Hong Kong. For example, many now bring their own bags when they go to supermarkets. They do so not only because they want to save money but also because they have changed their mindsets and behaviour. No community can turn itself into a green home unless its members consciously make conservation efforts and adopt green practices. Given its social progress, what Hong Kong has achieved is cherishable. We believe that, if retail outlets conscientiously charge the PSB levy as required by the applicable legislation and the authorities carry out sufficient inspections, the extension of the Levy Scheme will further reduce PSB usage.
The PSB levy was first proposed in 2005. The Levy Scheme came into effect about four years later. It took time to make deliberations, consult the public and get the legislation through. At first the government seemed full of misgivings because views were diverse about the levy. Now the first phase of the Levy Scheme has proved successful, one may say with the benefit of hindsight it seemed over-anxious then. In making a policy, it should of course heed citizens' views and fully consider their concerns. However, it is clear from the implementation of the first phase of the Levy Scheme that, provided it adheres to what is right and gives citizens suitable directions, the government can cause them to make changes beneficial to society.