China’s bag ban, one year later

In an effort to reduce “white pollution”, the country restricted the sale, distribution and manufacture of flimsy plastic sacks. Is the effort working? chinadialogue joined the discussion in Beijing.

China’s restrictions on the plastic bags came into effect on June 1, 2008. How well have the rules been implemented? What problems have arisen? What changes are still needed? chinadialogue, the internet portal Sohu’s environmental channel and the Global Village Environmental Culture Institute of Beijing (GVB) recently held a forum to mark the anniversary and to explore these questions.

In attendance were Li Jing, deputy head of the National Development and Reform Commission’s resource conservation and environmental protection department; Li Jiajian, head of the ministry of commerce’s standardisation office; Dong Jinshi, deputy director and secretary-general of the International Food Packaging Association; and various NGO and consumer representatives.

The following is an edited transcript of the discussion, hosted by Su Su of green.sohu.com

What the ban changed

Host: Why were the regulations implemented? How should we understand this policy?

Li Jing: China is a major producer and consumer of plastic bags, and their overuse and poor disposal cause a large amount of waste – particularly with the thinnest bags. They do not biodegrade easily; in soil they reduce permeability and water absorption, and threaten crops; and they can be fatal if eaten by animals.

The policy aimed to save resources and protect the environment, and also show China to be a responsible country on the international stage. Over a dozen provinces and cities had implemented their own bans and restrictions, but on a national level this wasn’t very significant. These nationwide restrictions helped change that.

Host: And over this last year, have we seen the hoped-for results?

Li Jing: Personally, I think the results have been clear and, in the main, positive. In particular, environmental awareness has increased. Shops and supermarkets have implemented the rules well. Things aren’t ideal at some markets, particularly as time passes and the policy gets forgotten. I pretended to be buying vegetables once and asked a few of the stallholders. They felt that nobody was enforcing it any more.

Li Jiajian: Markets and some more remote areas haven’t done so well, and there are variations in implementation. But there’s a process from setting rules and seeing them fully implemented.

Host: A survey published on May 20 by the China Chain Store & Franchise Association found that while plastic-bag usage in foreign-invested supermarkets had dropped by 80%, the fall was only 60% in Chinese-owned stores. The overall drop was 66%, and about 40 billion fewer bags had been used. Mr Dong also has a set of figures.

Dong Jinshi: Our survey, conducted over more than a year, found that the number of plastic bags in garbage has reduced by over 10%. Beijing produces over 20,000 tonnes of garbage a day, with 10% — about 2,000 tonnes of that – being plastic bags. A 10% reduction means 200 tonnes less garbage.

The effects of the policy have received national, and even international, recognition. When it comes to the environment, we often learn from abroad. But in this case, it’s the other way round.

Host: Wang Jie, you’re a full-time housewife. What changes have you seen?

Wang Jie: It’s definitely made a difference. Now when I go out to buy something I have to check I’ve remembered to bring a bag. It’s a little inconvenient. But I think it’s worth it. Some of my neighbours and friends think it was just for the Olympics, and that the ban should end now. But I think we should stick with it, make it a good habit. 

Implementation problems

Host: Once the ban was announced, environmentally friendly replacement bags were promoted, mostly cloth bags. Some NGOs hold that the manufacturing of any product consumes resources and creates pollution, and that only reducing use is actually environmentally friendly. This includes non-woven fabric bags and the plastic bags used for fresh produce.

Li Jing: Fresh-produce bags are only used in the supermarket for buying fish, fruit and so on; they’re a kind of pre-packaging. As shopping bags now cost money, the free fresh-produce bags are used more often. Non-woven fabric bags aren’t plastic, but do consume more oil in production than the plastic equivalent. Nor can they be recycled, so widespread use could be a potential danger, causing greater waste of resources and environmental damage.

Host: Also, the bags used by restaurants for takeaway or delivery food aren’t charged for. Why is that?

Li Jiajian: First, the level of bag use in the catering industry is very low. Secondly, making it easier for consumers to take leftovers home is actually saving waste – so restaurants weren’t included in the restrictions, nor were hospitals. However, I’ve observed that most hospitals do charge for plastic bags [in which to carry medicines]. I believe that the catering industry will follow suit in the near future.

Host: We carried out an online survey in May, and found that only 15% of markets charge for bags, and the vast majority still provide free super-thin bags. Why?

Li Jing: The new rules have two main points: a strict ban on super-thin plastic bags, those thinner than 0.025 millimetres; and the encouragement of charging for bags that do meet national standards. But control of manufacturing isn’t very effective, and it’s easy to set up simple workshops producing plastic bags — which means enforcement isn’t easy. And if the super-thin bags are available, markets in more remote areas will use them. There’s room for improvement here.

Host: Mr Dong, do you have any suggestions here?

Dong Jinshi: Markets have lots of stalls, and it’s hard to manage them all – but it can be done. Take Beijing’s Dongjiao market as an example. That sees annual sales of over three billion yuan [about US$440 million], but only six stallholders sell plastic bags and they have to be authorised to do so. Traders pay a deposit of 30,000 yuan [US$4,400], and if they are found to be selling substandard bags then punishments – including loss of that deposit, or even removal from the market – are enforced. Also, the prices charged for bags must be clearly marked. Since these measures were brought in, not one trader has had a deposit confiscated.

Host: What issues has the ministry of commerce seen?

Li Jiajian: We’ve found that some street traders, and some restaurants, are using large quantities of substandard bags. This is to some extent related to the difficulties and costs of monitoring the situation.

Recycling of old plastic bags

Host: Mr Dong, you’ve bought us a brick made from plastic bags?

Dong Jinshi: Discarded plastic bags can affect the soil and groundwater. This brick is made from plastic bags, coal ash and clay. It’s strong. You can drive a car over it. It turns plastic bags into a resource, a product, rather than burying or burning them.

Host: What has the National Development and Reform Commission done towards the recycling of plastic bags?

Li Jing: We’re working on it. There are regulations for the recycling of reusable resources, including plastic bags, which set minimum standards for recycling firms. Those requirements are still low, or non-existent, and we’re working on that. We’re also setting up similar projects as part of circular economy trials, particularly after the release of the circular economy law.

Li Jiajian: The ministry of commerce ran a first set of plastic-bag recycling trials in 26 cities, and we’re now running a second stage in all provincial capitals and local administrative centre cities. Central authorities are also to finance local government centres for sorting building waste. These measures are bound to help with the recycling of plastic bags.

Li Jing: I’ve visited a number of provinces to see what’s happening and, in some, recycling is already taking place at scale, such as Linyi in Shandong. It’s doing really well there. We try and see recycling as a mine in the city. We don’t use new resources. We use recycled resources, saving power and protecting the environment.

For more from the Beijing forum, see https://green.sohu.com/s2009/may-forum/

Also, please add your thoughts about the issues raised on chinadialogue’s forum.

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