‘Biodegradable’ plastic bags failing in Beijing

Beijing’s market regulator has assessed 29 types of “biodegradable” plastic bag and found that 19 (or 65.5%) fail to meet industry and national standards.  

The standards concern labelling, biodegradation rate, volatile organic compound emissions, and carrying capacity by weight. The regulator emphasised that producers and sellers falling short of these standards face legal consequences.

Humanity produces more than 430 million tonnes of plastic annually, two-thirds of which comprise short-lived products that soon become waste, according to the UN Environment Programme. In 2019, China accounted for one-fifth of global single-use plastic waste, more than any other nation, though the per capita figure is a fraction of that in Australia and the US, reports the SCMP

To tackle China’s plastic pollution during 2021-2025, the National Development and Reform Commission and Ministry of Ecology and Environment issued a five-year plan in September 2021.

A summary of the plan states: “By 2025, key sectors such as retail, e-commerce, and express delivery, are expected to drastically cut the unreasonable use of single-use plastics.” The plan also promotes use of alternatives to ​​non-biodegradable plastic “such as bamboo, wood, paper, and degradable plastics“. 

“Biodegradable plastic substitution was previously a popular solution, but the [five-year] plan proposed that its true value in solving plastic pollution needs to be scientifically evaluated to avoid unreasonable capacity expansion,” Dr Tan Yiki of Tsinghua Circular Economy Research Centre, recently told the media

Biodegradable plastics are supposed to completely decompose into natural substances within a reasonable timeframe. However, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) warns that the results of lab tests, conducted under controlled conditions, do not guarantee that a product will break down in the natural environment.

In China, biodegradable plastics are presently disposed of alongside regular garbage in incinerators and landfills, Wen Zongguo, a professor at Tsinghua University’s School of Environment, writes in Xinhua News. As a result, such products not only come with a higher price tag, but lack environmental advantages over traditional plastics.

Read China Dialogue’s article from last year on how China is cooling on biodegradable plastic.