China Bans Free Plastic Bags

BEIJING, China, January 10, 2008 (ENS) – The government of China has ordered a ban on the production, sale and use of ultra-thin bags as of June 1. Supermarkets and shops will be banned from giving free plastic bags to customers as of that date, but they can sell the plastic bags.

In a circular posted on the central government’s website Tuesday, the General Office of the State Council China said it will encourage shoppers to use fewer plastic bags.

Chinese shopper with
plastic bags (Photos
courtesy Plastic Bags
Reduction Network)

“Our country consumes a large amount of plastic bags. While convenient for consumers, the bags also lead to a severe waste of resources and environmental pollution because of their excessive use and low rate of recycling,” said the circular. “The ultra-thin bags are the main source of ‘white’ pollution as they can easily get broken and end up as litter.”

The circular said the Ministry of Commerce is in discussion with the country’s top economic planner, the National Development and Reform Commission, on detailed regulations on paid use of plastic bags.

Chinese consumers have gotten used to free plastic bags since shopkeepers began offering them more than a decade ago.

But there has been a grassroots citizens’ movement in China to do away with the plastic bag. On Earth Day 2007, the Plastic Bags Reduction Network called upon Chinese shoppers to cut their plastic bag consumption in half.

“We believe that excessive use of plastic shopping bags is making a contribution to this throwaway culture in China, and its consumption needs to be curbed,” said the group, which is based in Beijing.

The group quoted an official estimate that Beijing shoppers consume nearly 10 billion plastic bags annually – around 27 million bags per day.

“If we reduce plastic bag consumption by 50 percent for one week about 94 million, equivalent to 450 tons of plastic bags, can be saved. This reduction would save two to four million yuan in retail costs. This is just a result from one week of reduction action. Imagine how big the savings could be if we were to do this for a whole year!” the group said.

Volunteers from Plastic Bags
Reduction Network pick up bags
from the streets of Beijing.

On July 14, 2007, Plastic Bags Reduction Network co-organized a clean-up activity with Greening the Beige, an arts and environment nonprofit, to gather material for a “Refoliation tree” as a way to raise people’s awareness of the impact of littering. Plastic bags collected from the streets of Beijing were re-fabricated to form plastic leaves for the tree.

Dong Jinshi, vice chairman of the Waste Plastics Recycling Committee of China Plastics Processing Industry Association said the ban that takes effect June 1 will cut use of plastics bags by more than 60 percent and raise the recycling rate of one-time plastic bags.

He said the country should introduce substitutes for plastic bags as soon as possible.

“I think [the ban] will help improve the environment. When I go shopping, I would prefer taking a fabric bag with me rather than buying a plastic one from the shop,” the government circular quoted Beijing accountant Jing Ruihong as saying.

Large supermarkets such as Wal-mart has been advocating use of eco-friendly cotton bags since late 2007. These bags are priced at three yuan, significantly lower than their production cost usually of around nine yuan, said Huang Li from Wal-mart’s public relations department.

Huang said the sales of cotton bags are not “good” because people inclined to use free plastic bags they offered. Nevertheless, she said the latest ban would facilitate promotion of eco-friendly bags and Wal-mart would look at the issue closely before deciding whether to offer other kinds of substitute bags.

Wal-Mart came to China in 1996 opening first in Shenzhen, in the southern provinces of Guangdong. Today, there are 101 Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club stores in 53 cities.

In Shenzhen, the General Office of the State Council said Wednesday, retailers use at least 1.75 billion plastic bags each year. “Most of those bags would decompose only after 200 years and some would never,” said the local environmental protection department.

Ahead of the national directive, Shenzhen announced in November it was considering placing fees on the use of plastic bags, with fines from 5,000 to 50,000 yuan (US$667 to $6,667) for retailers who gave them away for free.

However, experts said it might take time for consumers to adapt to the new rule as they had long taken free plastic bags for granted as a convenience retailers were supposed to offer.

In preparation for the June 1 deadline, the State Council said, local environment protection departments must improve waste recycling practices and strengthen the monitoring of plastic bag recycling. They should establish an “environment entry threshold”, pollution control standards and technical criteria for collecting, delivering, storing and reproducing plastic bags.

Meanwhile, ultra-thin plastic bags are banned in passenger trains, vessels, buses, planes, stations, airports and scenic spots.

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