Insights from the plastic bag levy

Starting from 31 December 2022, the plastic bag levy has now doubled to $1 after 13 years of implementation. Several exemptions, such as giving out free bags for chilled and frozen foods and food items wrapped entirely in non-airtight packaging, have also been phased out.

Exemptions from PSB Charge (Image source: EPD)

Regardless of your thoughts on the levy level, this is still a welcomed push to combat the liberal use of disposable plastic bags and get more people to bring their own reusable ones. After all, in the latest government statistics, plastic waste has overtaken paper as the second largest waste type, with plastic bags making up for the common item within the group.[1]Plastic bags are also the most dominant waste found polluting the oceans today.[2]

Composition of MSW disposed of at landfills in percentages in 2020 and 2021 (Image source: EPD)

The 10 most widespread waste items in the world’s oceans (Image source: Statista)

Like all levies however, it is not surprising to find that the update to the plastic bag levy was received with mixed feeling. Many of the more environmentally-conscientious individuals—and even those that are less price-sensitive—felt that the increase does not go far enough to encourage positive behaviour change.[3]Some lawmakers on the other hand pushed back against the levy entirely, claiming it only burdens grassroots families when they forget to bring their bags.[4]

So what is the right level for the levy? Is there a right level at all? Are there any lessons we can take from the now 13-year-old plastic bag levy?

For one, we now know that people can get used to changes quickly. Although there was a big drop in the number of plastic bags being disposed initially at launch, that soon rebounded; and now we are returning to pre-2009 numbers. The levy increase may be a blunt yet efficient tool to remind people to use less plastic bags, but how long will the reminder last for a $0.5 increase? Rather than making sporadic updates, we have previously suggested to have a review mechanism to adjust the levy regularly—both to achieve the intended goal of the policy and to prod people to adopt sustainable practices.[5]

Financial disincentives are but just one facet of producer responsibility however. For instance, we do not argue whether it is okay to fine people $1,500 for littering or how it would affect grassroots families, because littering is no longer considered to be something that is socially acceptable. Trying to nudge people into better practices by just appealing to material self-interest alone is not enough. The government has to also communicate to people as to why using less plastic bags—or taking any sustainable actions at all—is a social good.

Environmental education unfortunately is still poor in Hong Kong. Environmental protection and sustainable development are only taught in a limited scope within Citizenship and Social Development at schools. There is also limited social marketing outside of schools to encourage sustainable behaviours.

NGOs are often relied upon by the government to fill in the gaps through public outreach. But the former do not have long-term access to sustainable funding and resources and cannot replace the responsibilities of the government.

With the levy update, we will probably see a drop in plastic bag use for a year and maybe two. But so long as the government does not develop complete policy packages to address and support sustainable behavioural change when designing producer responsibility policies, we will continue to see rebound effects.

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