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Plastic Bag Ban Enters Its Second Year

By staff reporter LI YAYUAN

Jiang Nan, a full-time mother in Beijing, keeps a dozen or so cloth bags at home, carefully selecting one or two before heading out to get groceries. “Most of them were give-aways from advertising marketing campaigns, but others had been handed out in the street by various environmental protection organizations,” she explained. Every two days she goes to the grocery store or the fresh produce market, and carries her purchases back in these cloth bags.

Since June 2008 China has prohibited the production, sale and usage of plastic shopping bags thinner than 0.025 millimeter, and retailers are not allowed to provide free plastic bags to their customers, regardless of the thickness.

Many Chinese consumers like Jiang have learned to shun plastic bags whenever possible in their shopping. “A bag may only cost a few jiao (10 jiao is one yuan), but it’s more about how bad they are for the environment,” Jiang said. “When I don’t buy too many items, I usually just carry them by hand. I won’t pay for a plastic bag unless I end up buying a lot, and I happened to have forgotten my cloth bags at home. When I do, I try to expand the value from it by turning it into a garbage bag later.” Jiang admits she has become stingy with plastic bags after they added the charge.

On the first anniversary of the plastic ban Global Village of Beijing, an NGO environmental organization, and International Food Packaging Association released the results of a survey conducted by the China Chain Store and Franchise Association, which showed that during the year of the ban the consumption of plastic bags fell by approximately 40 billion pieces in chain supermarkets alone, saving more than 1.2 million tons of petroleum.

Strict enforcement of the rule requires the compliance of the whole public. Jiang Nan noticed that the majority of people in her neighborhood now carry textile bags to shop at the local produce market. And the vendors have been good about not offering plastic bags for free, for fear that any violation of the rules may result in a fine.

According to the market manager Mr. He, all businesses at the location are required to use plastic bags that meet state standards. A large one is priced at two jiao, and a small one one jiao, much higher than the flimsy type that prevailed in the market before the plastic ban. Most vendors discourage the use of plastic bags. Mr. He admitted that the plastic ban was met with aversion among both vendors and buyers in the early days, who felt that it would be an inconvenience, but have since come around to the idea.

There are still those who don’t have an interest in living green. Cui Lin, another Beijinger, often forgets to bring a textile bag from home when shopping, and has to buy plastic bags. “Anyway I think plastic bags are neater and cleaner, and I don’t mind paying a couple more jiao,” he shrugged.

Those who do keep cloth bags in their handbags at all times still find that plastic cannot be avoided completely. For instance, vegetables in produce markets are mostly stained with mud, so tend to make a mess of the cloth bags that hold them. Fresh meat and frozen foods also tend to need separate impervious packaging, for which plastic is obviously the best choice.

For those women who value grace above all else, cloth bags are sometimes abhorred for their larger size – even when folded they often create an unsightly bulge in their sleek handbags – and then there’s the homely design. “Because it does not fit into my bag, I am forced to carry the botchy thing by hand all the way home, fretting over the thought that I might look like a monk with his alms sack,” complained Huang Jing, a young clerk.

In some produce markets vendors still offer free plastic bags, mostly the substandard type, as a tactic to grab customers. “In the market near my home vegetables are always first put into a plastic bag before being tucked into my cloth bag,” said Miss Huang.

Despite some sporadic breaches, the plastic ban is for the most part well carried out in big cities, and has been distinctly effective in reducing white waste. But enforcement shows considerably less muscle in smaller cities, towns and the countryside.

When Mrs. Yu, a vegetable vendor in Lichuan County, Jiangxi Province, was told last year that thin plastic bags would be swept off the market, her first reaction was to stockpile them when they were available. She bought 100 bundles, 100 bags each. In the first month of the plastic ban, the thin bags that she and other vendors had been supplying their customers did disappear. They however gradually crept back into sight in the following months, at a slightly higher price.

Mrs. Yu guessed that after state-owned factories gave up making thinner bags, the small private ones who stealthily continued the production would face less competition, and could therefore jack up the price without fear of losing orders. In a remote county like Lichuan awareness of environmental protection is not as strong or prevalent. Street vendors worry that they are likely to lose customers if they charge them for plastic bags. Seeing no significance in the issue, local authorities often turn a blind eye to banned bag traffic in the market.

Mrs. Yu recalled that before plastic bags became popular in the early 1990s Chinese people always carried a bamboo basket when they visited the market. “Plastic bags are more convenient,” she comments, and her view might be that of the tens of millions of people in the nation who still cling to plastic bags, paid or free. This is suggested by her trade where piles of filmy plastic bags are still passed out everyday.


VOL.59 NO.12 December 2010 Advertise on Site Contact Us