Hong Kong through the Looking Glass: A Series on Sustainable Planet, People, and Prosperity
The cashier asked, “Do you need a bag?”
Standing in International’s much longer than normal checkout line a fellow shopper and I were chatting. Our paths had crossed a few minutes before when he’d excused himself saying he’d left his glasses at home and couldn’t read a label. Were the oranges from China? He wasn’t supposed to buy produce from China. Normally he didn’t do the shopping. But wanting to stock up on provisions with Typhoon Usagi on the way he’d been pressed into service.
I couldn’t read the label either and suggested the longans from Thailand. A fruit similar to a spherical oversized grape with a hard easily peelable rind, I’d tried them on an early Hong Kong grocery shopping trip, liked their clean refreshing taste and texture, and they’d become a favorite. My new acquaintance had lived in Hong Kong for more than a decade but didn’t know longans and moved off to try to find an English-speaking clerk to ask about the oranges. After our respective shopping was finished we ended up together in line.
The clerk asked again and this time I registered she was talking to me. “Do you need a bag?” Not, “Do you want a bag?” or, “Do you want a paper or plastic bag?” Do you need a bag? The Hong Kong government imposes a 50 cent (about 6½ US cents) fee on grocery bags. If the clerks can’t see that you have a bag they ask if you need one. When you look like you might not be from Hong Kong, they also tell you there’s a cost. So far whenever I’ve needed a bag they’ve always told me there’s a cost.
That’s different from how plastic grocery bags are addressed in Tucson and most of the U.S. Perhaps it gives consumers a more effective sustainability message. No U.S. federal or state law regulates bag use. Safeway clerks used to ask, “Do you want paper or plastic?” but I haven’t heard that question in a long time. Now they just start bagging with plastic and seem surprised if you ask for paper. That’s not a very good message.
A number of U.S. cities have banned single use plastic bags and a few retailers have stopped offering them, but Hong Kong’s approach seems less paternalistic and more educational. Sure you can have one of these bad bags, but there’s a cost. We clean up after ourselves or we pay to have it done, now or in the future. There is no free ride.
In middle school our work wasn’t done and we weren’t dismissed from shop until cleaning was finished. When younger than that I was taught that helping to clean up after dinner was a responsibility. Before I could play my mom would ask, “Are the dishes washed?”
There are sustainability challenges that are more significant than plastic bag use. But we come directly in contact with shopping bags almost every day. If that encounter makes us think a little about the difference between what we need and what we want, the waste we generate, personal responsibility, and the environment, then there’s a silver lining to the cloud.
Do you need a bag? There’s a cost.
A Side Note:International is owned by ParknShop, which is owned by the A.S. Watson Group (ASW), which is owned by Hutchinson Whampoa Limited (HWL), which is 49.97 percent owned by Cheung Kong Holdings. All those companies are based in Hong Kong. A.S. Watson is the world’s largest health and beauty retailer. Hutchinson Whampoa / Cheung Kong is an international conglomerate that operates in 52 countries and employees about 270,000 people. At first glance that’s how most business, except for mom and pop operations, is in Hong Kong. But even with such large business scale and integration, e-commerce seems primitive compared to the U.S. More about that and sustainable retailing in a future post.
Dante Archangeli recently moved to Hong Kong from Tucson, Arizona, USA, where he focused on sustainable construction and development. He is an MIT and USC educated project manager, entrepreneur, and builder.