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Hong Kong moves to send plastic bags packing

Hong Kong — Brian Pemberton is trying to help Hong Kong beat its looming waste crisis — one rice sack at a time.

The entrepreneur takes used sacks from China and refashions the hardy material into reusable and unique grocery bags, then sells them to eco-friendly shoppers to use instead of free plastic bags.

Pemberton is one of a growing number of green entrepreneurs taking advantage of a new awareness that plastic bags are an environmental hazard and the world needs to cut waste as landfill space is rapidly gobbled up.

"I was looking at the green approach to business — it makes sense to start in something that is not going to go away," said Pemberton, whose firm is called reSackel.

"The idea is to make a profit while doing something good. I came across the reusable shopping bags situation, and found that the statistics (on the use of plastic bags) are terrifying."

In Hong Kong — where double-bagging at supermarket counters is almost automatic — the seven million residents use a staggering eight billion bags a year — around three bags per person per day, according to government figures.

This is 50 percent more than in Taiwan and close to triple that of Europe, local environmental activists say.

The bags are part of Hong Kong’s landfill crisis as the city’s three sites are expected to run out of space in the next eight years.

"There is a very serious problem of waste in Hong Kong," said Alfred Lee, assistant director of the government’s waste management policy division.

He said the government is moving to introduce a 50-cent (6-cent US) levy in July on every bag given away at supermarkets and major retailers.

In recent years, countries from Ireland to Australia have brought in restrictions on plastic bags, while New Delhi has threatened jail sentences for customers and shopkeepers who ignore a ban.

Last June, China moved to slash its estimated one trillion bags a year consumption, banning ultra-thin versions and introducing a charge for regular bags.

Plastic bags can take decades to decompose and are blamed for clogging waterways, farms and fields, as well damaging marine life when they are dumped in the sea. They are piling up in landfills.

Hong Kong is examining incineration and encouraging more recycling, but it hopes the levy can change people’s minds about using plastic bags.

Lee said that getting a convenience-obsessed society that loves elaborate packaging to buy less, re-use more and recycle will take time.

"The levy scheme itself is not the whole solution, but it sends a message (and shows) a greater sense of urgency about the problem," he said.

The shopping bag problem was first highlighted 16 years ago, and the glacial progress to a levy is an indication of the power that major retailers have on government policy and the general lack of public awareness about waste problems.

Some politicians opposed the levy, expressing worries about adding extra costs during a recession, while the retail sector has stepped up its own voluntary scheme, partly to try to push back the July deadline.

Michelle Au, from Friends of the Earth, insisted the levy should only be a first step.

"Only around eight percent of landfill waste is plastic bags, while 20 percent comes from packaging," she said.

In the notoriously brand-conscious Hong Kong, where office workers compete to show off their latest luxury designer purchase, fashion could prove to be a key weapon in eliminating disposable bags.

Cheap knock-offs of the Anya Hindmarch-designed "I am not a Plastic Bag" were popular last year, and Gerard Prendergast, a marketing professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, said creating a trend was crucial.

"If Hong Kong really wants to rid itself of plastic bags, marketers need to find ways to create functional, environmentally-friendly bags that make a fashion statement — in a similar manner that Hollywood celebrities triggered the adoption of hybrid cars," he said.

Pemberton is hoping that shoppers use the eco-friendly bags repeatedly to get the full environmental benefit.

"If you use something and it only lasts a short period of time and takes more energy to make (than a conventional plastic bag), you are not helping the situation," he said.

Guy Newey/AFP/Expatica