Poking holes in China’s plan to ban plastic bags

Times Staff Writer

They dance in the wind, decorate trees and dot rivers. They rip into fingers and bang against legs. By some estimates, China uses 3 billion of them every day.

But if the government has its way, the thin plastic bags that blight this country will soon be a thing of the past. Under an ambitious plan announced in advance of the 2008 Summer Olympics, China has announced a ban on the production of the flimsiest of the bags by June 1.

“I think it’s a great idea and really support it,” retired factory worker Tang Xiulan said as she juggled several plastic bags loaded with pork, dates and herbs at one of Beijing’s many “wet markets,” which sell goods such as bloody slabs of meat and iced fish. “In fact, people should start right now. I should too, but don’t because we’re all lazy. The difficult part is changing old habits.”


The sheer volume of the bags is explained, at least in part, by shopping habits. Many people shop daily, preferring to buy small quantities either because they lack refrigerators or because it’s fresher. And with more bags have come new, more wasteful practices. Consumers who used to juggle a dozen eggs in a wicker basket on the back of their bicycles now make shopkeepers wrap each egg in its own plastic bag so it won’t roll around in the trunk of their cars.

“I’ve wanted this change for a long time,” said Yang Wenping, 45, a Beijing shopkeeper for nearly a decade. “Customers ask for bags endlessly, and you can’t really refuse. Some even ask without buying anything.”

If China can pull off the bag ban with its 1.3 billion people, it will set an example for the rest of the world, improving its negative environmental image and convincing skeptics that it has the political will to tackle vested interests and lazy habits in the interest of going green.

“Plastic shopping bags, due to reasons such as excessive use and inefficient recycling, have caused serious waste of energy and resources and environmental pollution,” the State Council said on its website in announcing the ban.

Similar efforts have been tried elsewhere with mixed success, but never on this scale. In March, San Francisco became the first U.S. city to ban common plastic shopping bags, and Bakersfield, Boston and Phoenix are among the other cities considering bans or fees.

Closer to home, this week Los Angeles County supervisors backed off their threat to ban plastic bags, instead choosing a voluntary program that leaves it to supermarkets and stores to coax customers into opting for reusable bags.


As part of the Chinese policy, the government also requires retailers to charge customers for thicker plastic bags, which aren’t covered by the ban, including those found in “quality” supermarkets and clothing stores.

In theory, China should find it easier to switch to cloth, vinyl or bamboo bags, because many consumers gave those up only in the 1990s, well within the memory of many Chinese.

China’s record on related bans has not been all that successful, however, prompting criticism that this is little more than a publicity stunt. In recent years, Beijing has announced bans on plastic packing materials, disposable wooden chopsticks, plastic lunch trays and throwaway cosmetic items distributed in hotel rooms, only to see each restriction quietly ignored within months.

Part of the problem, environmentalists say, is the mind-set in a country that saw the tumultuous Cultural Revolution wipe out most notions of public good and now finds itself in a headlong rush to acquire wealth.

Perhaps the biggest problem, however, is that the plastic bag policy has been crafted without much thought as to how it would work, industry experts say. This risks disenchantment among citizens only beginning to embrace environmental concerns.

“A plastic bag is a tiny item but one that’s closely associated with people’s everyday lives,” said Yang Huidi, chief editor at China Plastic, a trade magazine. “This is a litmus test of the government’s problem-solving skills as it jumps on the bandwagon without thinking things through. They would have done better to do nothing.”


For one thing, banning outright all bags thinner than 25/1000th of a millimeter, rather than requiring manufacturers to meet strength tests, could prompt China to use more plastic.

“This policy is nonsense,” said Tang Saizhen, secretary-general of the China Light Industry Information Center. “If I buy one steamed bun and use a thicker bag, it’s an even bigger waste.”

Many of the details have still not been worked out, others say, including what penalties, if any, will be meted out to those who disregard the law, and what price to set for thicker bags.

“Unless they were really expensive, I’d probably just pay and not worry too much about it,” said Niu Ning, 28, a textile worker, who estimates that he uses four plastic bags a day.

If the government really wants to improve its use of resources and improve cityscapes, others say, it should encourage plastic recycling. Although some wealthier regions such as Guangdong province in the south are recycling bags, most areas don’t.

Some say the real push behind the new policy and its predecessors may be China’s pre-Olympics image and the high price of oil, from which plastic is derived, rather than concern over the environment.


“This whole thing is a big publicity stunt,” said Zhang Hua, a Beijing fishmonger. “Plastic is so convenient, whether you’re in China or abroad, that you won’t change people’s habits. We’ll still be using plastic for another 200 years.”

But Wang Yongchen, president of Green Earth Volunteers, one of China’s oldest civic groups, points out that people always resist change but eventually get used to it.

“There are a lot of complaints, and it’s going to take some adjustment,” she said. “But China has so many people, and our resources are getting scarce. It’s necessary for the planet.”