As U.S. Cities Waver on Plastic Bag Tax, China's Bag Ban Saved 1.6 Million Tons of Oil

A ban on super thin plastic bags cut the use of 40 billion bags, reduced plastic bag usage by 66 percent and saved China 1.6 million tons of petroleum, according to recent government estimates, Worldwatch reports.

In a byzantine federal-local system in which officials often flaunt national environmental policies, China's bag policy is widely considered to be a shining example of the powerful, positive effects Beijing can have over the environment when it chooses to.

Last week, as the U.N. Environment Program's chief called for a global ban on plastic bag production, Washington, D.C., approved a bag tax. But Baltimore backed out on a bag fee, and a week-old bag ban in Philiadelphia was killed, apparently under pressure from lobbyists of the petroleum and retail industries.Though government estimates sometimes deserve to be taken with a heavy grain of MSG, and the plastic bag has been met with heavy skepticism, the ban appears to be having a significant effect.

Compliance isn't uniform. A recent survey by Beijing-based non-governmental organization Global Village showed that while nearly 80 percent of people support the ban on free plastic bags, more than 80 percent of retail outlets in rural areas ignored the ban.

Since March, the State Administration for Industry and Commerce has deployed 600,000 regulators to inspect 250,000 retail stores or markets for free plastic bags and non-eco-friendly bags. About 2,000 cases were investigated and 2 million yuan of fines imposed.

The SAIC recently issued a memo warning supermarkets providers of "substandard or free plastic bags" could be fined up to 10,000 yuan ($1,470), and may be subject to one of China's most popular forms of punishment: media exposure.

Last year, state media reported that China's largest plastic bag factory closed following the imposition of the ban in January 2008.

China Daily notes that fashion may be helping to advance the government's policy. Tote bags with hip designs -- or "conservation bags" -- are a must-have accessory for youth in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai.


A "conservation bag" on sale in Beijing. Flickr: Xiaming

The Anya Hindmarch "I'm Not a Plastic Bag" tote caused such a stir in Hong Kong last year that authorities "banned" its sale in Beijing. The counterfeiters were already hard at work.

Besides leading to rampant pollution that ends up in trees and harms birds and fish -- what China refers to as "white pollution" -- plastic bags are seen as a scourge because they aren't often recycled. While the plastics industry says more than 90% of Americans reuse their bags at least once, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates they are recycled at less than one-third the rate of paper bags.

Ireland imposed a tax on plastic grocery bags in 2002, San Francisco became the first U.S. city to ban conventional plastic grocery bags, in 2007, and Los Angeles will follow suit in 2010.

Steiner's call for a global ban on the bags cited the fact that plastic is the largest source of ocean litter.

The second most abundant ocean pollution, as Matthew noted last week, is cigarettes.

Ocean debris worldwide kills at least 1 million sea birds and 100,000 mammals each year, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association has estimated. The litter is most severe in the east Asian seas region, which includes countries such as China with a population 1.3 billion people and where, according to UN figures, almost 60 percent of men smoke.

Beijing has also imposed a partial smoking ban, and this month called for a ban on smoking in hospitals.

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Tags: Beijing | China | Oil | Plastic Bags | Pollution | Recycling