Tough goodbye to flimsy bin bags?

Low-quality plastic shopping sacks have been banned in China. But Li Siqi asks what teeming urban areas can do about bigger, one-time-use rubbish ones.

With the enforcement since June of a ban on low-quality plastic shopping bags in China, it is no longer common to see them being blown around by the wind. In urban areas, though, large bin bags have become perhaps just as common as the small shopping bags used to be. Made of very similar material, they have become another source of plastic pollution. The trash collection points serving Beijing’s communities, for example, are full of rubbish enclosed in bin bags. There are worries about where these bags will end up — and with what environmental impact.

Since 1997, Beijing has encouraged the use of bags to hold rubbish, and bin bags quickly became popular – bringing with them significant environmental issues. Beijing produced 6.19 million tonnes of domestic rubbish in 2007, filling five billion bin bags. In the past, residents formerly reused shopping bags as bin bags in order to save money. While the ban on plastic shopping bags has greatly reduced their use, according to news media reports, supermarket sales of bin bags have increased.

Unlike with shopping bags – or “white pollution” — there are no government-enforced standards for bin bags. Hence, most small producers forced by the ban to stop producing plastic shopping bags have switched to making the ones for bins. Consequently, large quantities of low-quality bags are flooding the market.

These bags are produced mostly from discarded plastic, with the main ingredient being the same as the old shopping bags – polythene (or polyethylene), which takes centuries to biodegrade. They are usually 0.005 millimetres to 0.010 millimetres in thickness – much less than the 0.025 millimetres mandated for shopping bags — but the same standards do not apply. Without standards and oversight, the situation will continue.

Again due to a lack of standards, the percentage of biodegradable bin bags on sale is extremely small. According to a recent survey by a journalist from Beijing’s Legal Mirror, only one or two of 10 brands of bin bags on sale in Beijing’s major supermarkets, including the French chain Carrefour, were of extra thickness or were labelled as biodegradable and “environmentally friendly”. But these cost as much as 5.80 yuan for 30 bags – much more than the standard types of bag – and so few people buy them.

Even those that are marked as biodegradable are questionable. A spokesperson for one chemical company said that the so-called biodegradable bags actually contain only 10% to 15% biodegradable material; the remainder is entirely non-biodegradable. And the addition of the environmentally friendly material reduces the strength and waterproofing of the bags.

At least bin bags are not free, unlike the plastic shopping bags of the past. But for an increasingly wealthy urban population, the low cost involved does nothing to reduce the bags’ use, and to a certain extent they have become a daily necessity. There is no chance they will disappear of their own accord. Sanitation workers are even using them to line public litter bins. In comparison with small shopping bags – which can be supplanted by reusable sacks or baskets — the use of household rubbish bags is relatively inflexible. And unlike shopping bags, bin bags are only ever used once.

So, although the ban has cut use of plastic shopping bags by two thirds, it will not be so easy to get rid of bin bags. Reducing their use to any significant extent and preventing their becoming a new source of urban plastic pollution will require more than a simple ban.

So how can we better deal with domestic waste? How can we prevent bin bags from becoming a new source of plastic pollution in China? Shopping bags can be swapped for reusable cloth substitutes – but what can replace plastic bin bags?

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Li Siqi is an associate editor of chinadialogue in Beijing.

Homepage photo by net_efekt