At the end of 2009, Hong Kong tried to do its bit to be more environmentally friendly by introducing a HK$0.50 levy on plastic shopping bags when people went to the supermarket and some retail shops.
But now we're finding out the effort has hardly made a significant dent in the amount of plastic bags thrown away. Originally it was believed Hong Kongers threw out some 5 billion plastic bags each year; and now according to the Environmental Protection Department, last year 4.4 billion plastic bags were discarded, meaning there were only 253 million fewer bags or 5.7 percent less than the year before the levy was imposed.
Another way to look at it is that each Hong Kong resident discards 1.7 plastic bags per day, only a slight improvement from the 1.8 bags they threw out before the introduction of the levy.
Hmmm something is wrong here.
These figures contrast significantly with supermarkets' claims that the number of bags handed out dropped by 80 percent since July 2009.
Another alarming statistic is that people in the city are throwing away more reusable bags, so-called environmentally-friendly bags, discarding 17.7 million in 2010, up from 10 million in 2009. This makes the situation worse as some of these reusable bags are actually made of more durable plastic so they take longer to decompose than disposable ones.
At my neighbourhood supermarket, most of the people I see do bring their own reusable shopping bags, or reuse old plastic bags. I find it's the men shopping on their own who don't bring any reusable bags (Chinese and expats) and have to buy a plastic bag. Also, there are those Chinese who only buy a few small items and get one of those plastic bags to hold fruits or vegetables and package their stuff in there because it's free.
When you go to street markets, like Ladies Market and Fa Yuen Street, all the vendors give you bags automatically; perhaps those ones should have the levy imposed on them. When people go to these places they intend to go shopping so they should bring their own shopping bag.
I agree wet markets should be able to give out plastic bags because who's really going to bring a plastic bag to hold tofu or meat? But they could put it in their own reusable bag.
It's really disappointing to see no significant drop in the use of plastic bags in the city. Admittedly I am at times at fault for not bringing my shopping bag with me 100 percent of the time, but I do reuse the bags for other things before discarding them.
But perhaps the government should expand its bag levy on other retail outlets so that we don't need to build incinerators and further pollute the environment.
And while I'm on this track, can I rant about air conditioning? The air conditioning temperatures set in Beijing were perfect. They were just cool enough, but not frigid temperatures that you had to put on a coat indoors. Also shops and restaurants did their best to conserve the use of cool air by making customers go through plastic blinds to go in and out.
In Hong Kong though, there is no thought to the end user; buses have arctic temperatures in them. One letter to the editor complained about having to wear a winter coat on the hour-long bus ride. How difficult is it to adjust the temperature and the engine wouldn't have to work as hard to keep the air conditioning going at such low temperatures.
And then there are many shops and malls that have no doors to stop the cool air from escaping the premises. The cold air is quickly sucked up by the heat and humidity, wasting energy and forcing the air conditioners to work even harder. How is this energy efficient? How is this helping the environment?
Does the government not care about making Hong Kong have a better living environment? Everyday people complain in newspapers here about the terrible air quality or how there's so much garbage everywhere, or that they don't want a landfill or incinerator in their backyard. People are willing to make changes if the government facilitates avenues for them to do so. Trying to cut down on the plastic bags is one, but what about imposing design requirements on malls and shops to prevent so much cold air from escaping? And what about implementing a recycling program in every apartment building?
The Tsang administration seems to be dragging its feet on pushing for more measures to improve the environment. We only have one planet. All the money in the world is not going to save it from being completely unlivable.