by Yingling Liu
China's recent plastic bag ban has been immediately accepted by consumers. In a country where billions of plastic bags are used each day, the government's top-down policy move will likely benefit the country's environment and energy security well before market forces or consumer-led efforts are able to achieve similar impact.
The ban prohibits shops, supermarkets, and sales outlets from handing out free plastic bags and bans the production, sale, and use of ultra-thin plastic bags under 0.025 millimeters thick. It took effect nationwide on June 1.
Plastic bags, a seemingly minor commodity, have mobilized four powerful government departments in China. The State Council, China's cabinet, issued the bag ban earlier this year, and in May, shortly before its implementation, three other departments stepped in and imposed an auxiliary ruling to enforce the directive. The Ministry of Commerce, National Development and Reform Commission, and State Administration for Industry and Commerce set forth detailed stipulations on implementation and enforcement in the ruling, known as Administrative Measures for the Paid Use of Plastic Bags at Commodity Retailing Places.
China's central government dealt this heavy blow to plastic bags out of concern for the environment and a desire for greater energy savings. People in China use up to 3 billion plastic bags daily and dispose of more than 3 million tons of them annually. Most of the carriers end up in unofficial dumping sites, landfills, or the environment. Urban dumping centers and open fields alongside railways and expressways are littered with the discarded bags, mostly whitish ultra-thin varieties. Such scenes have generated a special term in China: "the white pollution."
Plastic bags consume a huge quantity of oil, an energy source that in recent months has hovered at more than $100 per barrel on international markets. Experts estimate that China refines nearly 5 million tons (37 million barrels) of crude oil each year, or one-third of its imported oil, to make plastics used for packaging.
The twin pressures of environment protection and energy security have galvanized China's policymakers to take a strong stance, with an immediate initial result. Reports note that use of plastic bags in supermarkets in southern Guangzou City has dropped by nearly half since June 1, and some supermarkets in Beijing use as few as one-tenth the number of bags as before the ban.
Shoppers have embraced the ban without significant complaint, despite sacrificing some degree of shopping convenience. Older generations have reminiscently turned back to the woven baskets or plain cloth bags they used before plastic alternatives entered the Chinese market in the 1980s. Younger people are busy checking out online shops for more fashionable "eco-friendly" bags. Those who do pay for plastic bags are trying to buy as few as possible, foregoing the long-ingrained perspective of "better more than fewer" prevalent before the ban.
China's plastic bag policy is instilling a proactive attitude toward energy savings and environmental protection in a country where public environmental awareness is chronically weak. Price is still the paramount factor guiding people's purchases nationwide, and the consumer "green" movement remains a novel phenomenon, often regarded as a pet project of idealistic environmentalists.
The consumer mentality takes time to change. But as pressures on the environment and natural resources continue to rise, it is better to have smart government policies that guide consumer habits, rather than waiting for the market to force these changes. Simply relying on the market and on individual behavior may bring too little too late.
Yingling Liu is manager of the China Program at the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington-D.C. based environmental research organization.
Photo credit: From Flickr user Sazziej, Creative Commons license
In Beijing, I've greeted the plastic bag ban with enthusiasm, but as with any regulation, there is still enforcement to be done before it has the intended widespread effect.
In my anecdotal experience in the Xicheng, Dongcheng, Chaoyang, and Haidian districts of the capital last month, I found chain stores including grocery stores and convenience stores, as well as some restaurants, charging for bags. The chain convenience store near my home is actually giving away reusable (apparently non-plastic fiber-based) bags that seem to be supported by advertising printed on the side.
But most of the ubiquitous xiaomaibu -- usually family-run small stores that speckle the streetscape and sell fruit, basic necessities, and tons of cigarettes and beer -- seem to be ignoring the ban. Also handing out bags are street food vendors such as those who make jianbing and roast nuts. They're still using the ultra-thin variety.
In an early June visit to Dandong, a smaller city in Liaoning Province, I found absolutely no one adhering to the ban over the period of about 15 purchases in the downtown area.
The ban is a good step, but without further enforcement it may have a limited effect. Perhaps after Beijing authorities finish with the scramble for the Olympics, beginning just over 5 weeks from now, there will be more enforcement.
An enforcement strategy? If realistic, perhaps the government can stem the supply of regular bags and punish manufacturers of the ultra-thin variety.
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I've been a China watcher for nearly 3 decades, and just returned from China yesterday, having traveled to Beijing, Xinjiang, Gansu, and Tianjin. I saw no evidence of a ban being enforced, and was never charged for a plastic bag. The supermarkets did sell large reusable woven tote bags, and didn't seem to pass out plastic bags as readily as in the US, but I'm not sure whether or not that really is a change from the recent past.
The ultra-thin bags are ubiquitous, and are used especially for food items. These are needed, too. The thing is, most food in China is not prepackaged, sterilized stuff like in the US. Sanitary conditions are pretty bad, and to have any hope of transporting food that is sold piping hot in a sanitary way, you need something. I remember 25-30 years ago people often carried a covered tin/aluminum lunchbox that they could put food in, but in those days food choices were a lot more limited. Today the variety and availability of foods is tremendous compared with the past, but in the process of providing such abundance they have unfortunately adopted our disposable, "convenience is everything" approach. Disposable chopsticks are very common as well, but here again when you consider the sanitary conditions, these aren't really a luxury, they're a necessity. If they charged something for them, though, you can bet people would start carrying their own chopsticks, like they did 30 years ago.
I applaud the central government's efforts on the plastic bag issue, but can't really say I saw a lot of progress on this most recent trip. Every little bit helps, though, and given the strongly frugal nature of most Chinese people, charging even a small amount for bags is likely to reduce usage a lot. If enforced, this policy could make a big difference.