June 23rd, 2011 | Beijing Review Persisting Plastic Addiction
The policy on curbing plastic shopping bag use implemented three years ago has produced mixed results
In a bustling farmers’ market tucked in a narrow street in Xisanqi residential community in north Beijing, stalls selling vegetables, fruits and other foods line the sidewalk.
Three years after ultra-thin plastic shopping bags were banned in China they are still available for free in this market.
In the market, a deal is usually made when a customer says, “Give me a bag,” indicating he or she would like to buy the produce. Upon hearing this, the vendor will gladly snatch a plastic shopping bag from a hook.
Sixty-year-old Han Yi knows this well as she frequents the market to get most of the ingredients for meals. Han bought a chunk of bean curd, some fresh-baked pancakes, as well as cucumbers, long beans and eggplants. Each item was packed in a separate ultra-thin plastic bag.
Han knows about the ban on ultra-thin plastic shopping bags, but she said such bags were necessary. “I do not want to use so many plastic bags, but where can I put the bean curd? I cannot put pancakes together with vegetables either,” she said.
The bean curd Han bought is already “swimming” in water. Producers try to wring more profit by adding more and more water to it. Water will ooze out, making bean curd difficult to carry without a plastic bag.
Nonetheless, when Han shops in a nearby Merry Mart outlet, she always brings a large vinyl bag. The supermarket charges 0.2 yuan (3 cents) for each plastic shopping bag at the checkout counter. She is a thrifty person and does not want to squander money on plastic shopping bags.
In the supermarket, Han can pack meat, bean curd and vegetables in plastic wraps, which are provided for free, before bringing them to the checkout counter.
Since June 1, 2008, China has banned the production, sale and use of plastic shopping bags thinner than 0.025 mm and required all retail vendors in supermarkets, department stores and other markets to charge for plastic shopping bags at least 0.025 mm thick. Before that, shopkeepers had handed out cheap, flimsy plastic shopping bags for free to customers for about 15 years.
The policy also mandates plastic shopping bag manufacturers put a barcode and their contact information on the bags for the sake of supervision.
During the past three years, the policy produced mixed results, said Li Jing, Deputy Director of the Department of Resources Conservation and Environmental Protection, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC).
Li said supermarkets and department stores and many other large market places had stopped using ultra-thin plastic shopping bags, and the number of plastic shopping bags consumed in supermarkets and department stores was cut by two thirds, but in places such as farmers’ markets, ultra-thin plastic shopping bags were still in use.
The restrictions on plastic shopping bags are aimed at curbing pollution caused by plastic waste. The NDRC said before the policy was implemented, plastic accounted for 3-5 percent of the total weight of waste buried each year, and most of this plastic waste was ultra-thin plastic shopping bags.
Experts say it takes more than 100 years for plastic bags to decompose. Plastic shopping bags scattered around are unpleasant to look at. Moreover, animals that eat them could starve to death if the plastic stays in their stomach. Plastic products can also release toxic materials into the environment, especially when heated to certain temperatures, and thus pose health hazards.
Since the ban took effect, the NDRC, the Ministry of Environmental Protection and the Ministry of Commerce have set up 10 inspection groups to supervise and monitor its implementation.
The NDRC said in the past three years, 2.4 million law enforcement personnel had been dispatched, who made 520,000 visits to retail outlets of varying sizes, more than 5,500 visits to plastic shopping bag manufacturers, and more than 8 million visits to vendors. A total of 2.15 billion substandard plastic shopping bags were confiscated and destroyed. And 129 workshops producing ultra-thin plastic shopping bags were shut down.
Plastic is produced from petroleum and consumes energy. In the past three years, plastic bag consumption in major retail outlets has been cut by 24 billion, translating to 600,000 tons of plastic, according to NDRC statistics. That is the equivalent of saving 3.6 million tons of crude oil or more than 5 million tons of coal, and more than 10 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions have been reduced.
Despite the policy’s success in supermarkets, department stores and some other large market places, it has been largely ignored in small market places such as farmers’ markets.
In many small markets, whatever customers buy, a large melon or a small leek, the vendors will put them in free plastic shopping bags, usually ultra-thin ones.
An ultra-thin shopping bag usually costs less than half the price of plastic shopping bags up to state standards, so vendors naturally prefer ultra-thin shopping bags to save money, reported People’s Daily.
Dong Jinshi, an official with the Beijing Office of the International Food Packaging Association, said the effectiveness of the policy on curbing the use of plastic shopping bags had been waning. One year after the ban was implemented, ultra-thin plastic shopping bag consumption in farm produce wholesale markets was slashed by more than half, yet now, consumption has bounced back by more than 20 percent.
In the beginning, many plastic shopping bag producers stopped producing ultra-thin products. Data collected by the International Food Packaging Association show after the ban was implemented, half of the more than 30,000 plastic shopping bag producers in China suspended operation. Yet, 80 percent of those firms closed down, or having switched to other products, had resumed producing plastic shopping bags, though not necessarily ultra-thin ones, Dong said.
More disturbingly, the consumption of plastic wraps in supermarkets has increased significantly. The Beijing Municipal Development and Reform Commission recently said the increase was more than 55 percent, and the wraps were often used for one time and then discarded.
Salespersons in a Carrefour supermarket in Beijing’s Zhongguancun area acknowledged customers often tore extra free plastic wraps to hold things so that they no longer needed to buy plastic shopping bags at the checkout counter.
More efforts necessary
In spite of the mixed results of the policy to curb plastic shopping bag use, Li said the NDRC intended to expand it to bookstores, pharmaceutical stores and restaurants.
To reduce the use of plastic shopping bags, experts suggest on one hand, the general public should be educated to change their consumption behaviors, and on the other hand, measures should be taken to reduce the availability of plastic shopping bags to vendors and increase their purchasing costs. Regulators should also step up oversight.
“More education programs should be launched to raise the public awareness of the harm of white pollution, a byword for pollution caused by plastic shopping bags with reference to the color of many bags, and help customers gradually form a habit of reusing plastic shopping bags and substitute plastic bags with baskets and cloth bags,” said Dong Wenbo, a Fudan University professor in environmental science and engineering.
Li also called on local governments to play a bigger role in implementing the restrictions on plastic shopping bags, and incorporate it into their efforts in building environment-friendly cities or rural markets.
Moreover, market place owners should be held responsible for the policy’s implementation, and those shirking their duties should be seriously punished, Li said.
It is unrealistic to hope the environmental problems caused by plastic shopping bags could be solved by merely charging money for their use, Professor Dong said. A proper system to recycle and reuse plastic shopping bags should be established and suitable substitutes should be found, he said.
The difficulty in limiting the use of plastic shopping bags is they are really handy, and it is not easy to find good substitutes, said Sun Yingjun, an associate professor at Shandong Jianzhu University. Despite this, Sun suggests the government should spare no efforts to boost research on good substitutes and promote their usage.
By WANG HAIRONG