China bans single-use plastics

China recycling truck
CC BY-SA 4.0 Enming Yan – Recycling truck in Shenbei District, Shenyang, Liaoning, China

Over the next five years, it plans to eliminate shopping bags, straws, takeout food containers, and more.

This past weekend, China's National Development and Reform Commission issued a new policy that will phase out single-use plastics over the next five years. The policy states that non-biodegradable bags will be banned in major cities by the end of 2020, and in all cities and towns across the country by 2022. Fresh fruit and vegetable markets may continue to use them until 2025.

Restaurants must stop serving straws by the end of this year and reduce total usage of single-use plastics by 30 percent. Hotels have five years to phase out all single-use items. Starting in 2022, some food delivery services in Beijing and Shanghai will have to switch to biodegradable packaging, with those rules applying to the whole country by 2025.

China knows it has to do something about the enormous quantity of plastic waste it generates. The BBC says that China collected 215 million tonnes of household waste in 2017, but there are no figures for recycling. "The country's largest rubbish dump – the size of around 100 football fields – is already full, 25 years ahead of schedule." While Europe has cracked down on single-use plastics in recent years, Asian countries have been watching to see if the strategies are effective. Leiliang Zheng, an analyst at BloombergNEF, said,

"China is catching up with the rest of world. The EU is the leader in solving the plastic crisis and has already passed a law to widely ban single-use plastic items in 2019, and many developing countries in Africa and Southeast Asia are also tracking the problem."

This is good news, although the switch to biodegradable plastics is not ideal. Research has shown that biodegradable plastics still pollute the environment, that they fail to break down unless conditions are ideal, and can still harm wild animals. A better policy would be a return to reusable bags and containers, just as people used to shop, but this requires a huge culture shift, away from convenient disposability and last-minute decisions, toward planning and preparing purchases in advance.

China bans single-use plastics
Over the next five years, it plans to eliminate shopping bags, straws, takeout food containers, and more.

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