Lijiang’s war on “white pollution”

China has pledged to ban ultra-thin plastic bags from June.  Ke Xuedong finds that a town in Yunnan province struck its first blow against the bags five years ago, with impressive results.

A recent Chinese government ban on plastic carrier bags was hailed around the world. Under the new regulations from the State Council, which come into effect on June 1, 2008, shoppers at supermarkets, shopping malls and markets across the country will have to pay for plastic bags. The production, sale and use of ultra-thin plastic bags will be outlawed completely.

There are good reasons for the ban. Disposing of the bags is extremely difficult, say environmental experts. Plastic carriers take around 200 years to decompose naturally. They pollute the groundwater if we throw them in landfills; they produce noxious gases if we burn them. Over the years the public has become increasingly accustomed to the use of plastic bags, but the pollution they create – known in China as “white pollution” – has become increasingly severe. One billion plastic bags are given out by supermarkets in China every day, according to estimates from the Chinese Plastics Processing Industry Association; over two billion are used for other purposes.

What many people do not realise is that while the country prepares to do without plastic bags, the town of Lijiang, in southwest China’s Yunnan province, has had a similar ban in place for the past five years. The ban started in the city’s Gucheng district, and has since expanded to include the four counties that make up the rest of the city.

But can a simple ban really control “white pollution”? Does paying for bags really change people’s deeply ingrained habits? Only time will tell, but Lijiang’s experience provides us with a model of how plastic bag use might be successfully controlled.

The sky is blue and the streets are clean in Lijiang. Every now and then, a small group of Nakhi (Naxi) girls stroll past, carrying baskets on their backs. Tourists pour out of shops clutching cloth bags. Plastic bags are nowhere to be seen, and have been replaced by non-woven cloth bags. From a distance they look much like plastic bags in size, colour and thickness, but they are made of environmentally friendly materials and can be reused. A plastic bag only costs a few fen (0.01 yuan), says the head of the supermarket chain Likelong, while cloth bags are 10 times the price. Consequently people are not so quick to throw them away, and instead use them again and again.

The head of the Gucheng environmental protection bureau, Zhang Wei, told me that before the ban came into effect in July 2003, Lijiang, like many parts of the country, had a serious problem with “white pollution”. “The street cleaning teams were the most directly affected,” said Zhang. “If it was windy when they went to sweep the streets, plastic bags would be flying everywhere and were impossible to catch. The bags would end up hanging off trees. All over the streets there were bags and polystyrene fast-food containers. This really wasn’t a good image for a beautiful tourist town like Lijiang.” The district also had frequent problems with blocked sewage pipes, as plastic bags expanded in the water and blocked up the system.

“White pollution was a threat to wildlife on the plateau,” he continued. “Before the ban, yaks on the Yulongxue mountainside died after swallowing plastic bags. The problem was even worse in Shangri-la County.” Zhang understood the urgency of controlling the problem. “Plastic bags have been called the worst invention of the twentieth century,” he says. “The government hadn’t yet decided to implement a ban, but the environmental protection bureau was keen to see one in place.”

Zhang did not have to wait long. Sustainable development in the tourist industry had become a key issue for the Lijiang municipal government, which was spurred to action after Shangri-la, a neighbouring beauty spot, had banned plastic bags. Gucheng district was only established by the municipal government in April 2003, and its party representatives immediately made it their goal to turn the district into one of the most prosperous districts in Yunnan province and a world-class tourist centre for the region.

The district became the town’s political, economic and cultural centre – its window to the outside world. But increasing numbers of tourists were putting huge pressure on the local environment. A bold move was needed to protect the environment, said Zhang, and on April 1, 2003, Gucheng district announced its ban on “production, sale and use of disposable, non-biodegradable polystyrene and plastic packaging.” A small group was established to monitor the ban, and the first battle in Lijiang’s war on white pollution had begun. Soon environmental workers and volunteers were distributing leaflets about “white pollution”. There were announcements on the local television station every hour.

The ban came into formal effect on July 1. At the time, Zhang was deputy head of group behind the huge political offensive, which saw posters put up across the city explaining the ban. “Using plastic bags is extremely convenient; it was an ingrained habit,” he said. “Without pressure no one would change. So we had to get everybody involved, and make sure the message was spread into every single household.”

The ban now covers the whole town, and locals have been the first to experience a town without “white pollution”. Says Zhang: “Nowadays, if you walk around Lijiang carrying a plastic bag, people will look down on you. The plastic bag has something of a pariah status.”

One Lijiang resident told me that the ban seemed like a big inconvenience at first, especially at the market. But she later realised the value of the ban in terms of environmental protection: “I’ve lived in Lijiang all my life, and I’ve seen with my own eyes how much cleaner the city is now,” she said. “I’d give the ban two thumbs up.”

The success of the five-year war on plastic is plain to see. A sign at the entrance to Likelong supermarket reads: “For the sake of our environment, please use cloth bags.” The supermarket gives away reusable bags with every purchase over 30 yuan (around US$5). If you spend less, you can buy a bag for 0.45 yuan (US$0.06). The supermarkets have to sign an annual agreement promising not to use plastic bags, and annual inspections check compliance.

Zhang’s conclusion is simple. “Banning plastic bags is tough, but not impossible,” he says. “Your leadership has to be strong, your publicity has to be good, the public needs to be on board, and enforcement has to be strict. If these four things are in place, you can get rid of ‘white pollution’ anywhere.” 

An extended version of this article was first published in the Guangzhou Daily

Homepage photo by greenhem