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Hong Kong Considers Tax on Plastic Bags

Hong Kong has been searching for a way to reduce the use of plastic bags, which are currently handed out here at the rate of 33 million a day. The Environmental Protection Department says a tax on plastic bags might be the economic incentive needed to make shoppers think green.

Hong Kong's 6.9 million residents each use an average of almost five plastic bags a day. Just about everything purchased in supermarkets, shops and street stalls comes in a plastic bag, and the bags clog the landfills and litter the countryside.

Campaigns encouraging Hongkongers to bring their own bags when they go shopping have met with limited success. So the government is now considering a tax on the bags.

Chu Hon-keung is environmental affairs manager for the Hong Kong chapter of Friends of the Earth. He says making people pay for plastic bags has helped reduce their use elsewhere.

"When we learn from other countries' experiences, the economic incentive can really indeed achieve the benefit and positive effects to reduce the use of plastic bag," he said. "For example, in Taiwan, when they impose [a] plastic bag charge, the use of plastic bag [was] reduce[d] around 70 percent."

Before Taiwan stopped businesses from handing out free plastic bags, the island was using about 20 billion bags a year. Taiwan's Environmental Protection Administration says the law, enforced with large fines for businesses that violate it, has cut the use of plastic bags by more than two-thirds.

Last April, a student-run environmental group organized Hong Kong's first "No Plastic Bag Day." More than 1,000 retailers, including the two main supermarket chains, agreed to charge customers the equivalent of about seven cents for each bag, instead of offering them free as usual.

Now the first Tuesday of every month has been designated "No Plastic Bag Day." Organizers say plastic bag use dropped on these days by more than a third in June, and almost half in July.

Six major retailers have entered into a voluntary agreement with Hong Kong's Environmental Protection Department to cut the number of bags they distribute by 100 million a year. An executive of the Wellcome supermarket chain says Wellcome, one of the six, will reduce its own usage by about 40 million bags a year.