The notice that appeared on the website of China's State Council yesterday came as a welcome surprise: Starting in June, all shops will be forbidden from offering free plastic bags. Meanwhile, super-thin bags have been banned. Consumers are being asked to "go back to" using cloth bags and baskets. Meanwhile, Tibet's provincial government announced that it intends to ban all plastic bags period.
By targeting those pesky bags, China joins a growing club that includes Ireland, Uganda, South Africa, Russia, Hong Kong, and San Francisco (see the SCMP's rundown here). With the right enforcement -- that's always the tricky part -- and education campaigns, the upshot in China could be huge: China Trade News estimates that the country of 1.3 billion people must refine 5 million tons, or 37 million barrels, of crude oil every year to meet demand for plastic bags, which are used at a rate of 3 billion bags every day. Three billion. If that estimate is right, that means China uses as many bags in
two weeks one month as the U.S. uses in a year--or that would mean that every day each Chinese citizen uses twice the amount of bags that each American uses.As the State Council's announcement put it:
While providing convenience to consumers, they have also caused serious pollution, and waste of energy and resources, because of excessive use and inadequate recycling. Especially thin plastic shopping bags, which are easily damaged, are often discarded, becoming the main source of "white pollution." At present more and more countries and regions have already restricted plastic shopping bags, their production, sale, and use.
For the implementation of the scientific concept of development and building a resource-saving and environment-friendly society, from the source to take effective measures, and urge enterprises producing durable, easy recycling of plastic shopping bags, guide and encourage the rational use of plastic shopping bags to promote integrated resource use, and protect the ecological environment, to further promote energy-saving reduction, the State Council agrees to strictly limit plastic shopping bags...
The cabinet also told finance authorities to consider adjusting taxes to discourage the production of plastic bags and to encourage the recycling industry. Rubbish collectors have been urged to separate plastic for reprocessing and cut the amount of bags burnt or buried.
The government's move comes on the heels of a draft resolution passed by the government of the southern city of Shenzhen that proposed similar regulations. Though that idea sparked a small public controversy -- people claimed the rules would hurt consumers and shop-owners -- there's no saying no to the State Council. While enforcement will be challenging, the spirit of the government's order is one that is already resonating here.
So far, public response has been mixed: an online poll showed 50% of respondents against the ban. In Beijing, a set of grassroots campaigns against plastic bags launched in 2006 has been well received. IKEA and Wal-Mart launched promotions to get Beijingers to use reusable cloth bags for sale at the check-out counter. And this past year, after a stampede in Hong Kong for the "I'm Not a Plastic Bag" bag led to a "ban" of the bag on the mainland, copies of it and other tote bags with environmental messages turned up on the shoulders of fashionistas around the capital.
Australia is also considering a plastic bag ban, for implementation in 2009. But as Planet Ark founder Jon Dee points out, "the fact that China desires to do it in less than six months, I think is a sign that ... we could do it faster than that."
He continues: "The fact that the biggest country in the world, the biggest users of plastic bags, are moving to ban them ... is extremely important, because if it can be done in China it can be done in any country in the world."
Photo by Chris Jordan