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This article is from the In-Depth Report China, the Olympics, and the Environment

China Sacks Plastic Bags

Ban could save 37 million barrels of oil and alleviate "white pollution"



David Biello

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SHANGHAI—Thin plastic bags are used for everything in China and the Chinese use up to three billion of them a day--an environmentally costly habit picked up by shopkeepers and consumers in the late 1980s for convenience over traditional cloth bags. Fruit mongers weigh produce in them, tailors stuff shirts into them, even street food vendors plunk their piping hot wares directly into see-through plastic bags that do nothing to protect one's hands from being burned or coated in hot grease. They even have a special name for the plastic bags found blowing, hanging and floating everywhere from trees to rivers: bai se wu ran, or "white pollution," for the bags' most common color.

Yet, the Chinese government is set to ban the manufacture and force shopkeepers to charge for the distribution of bags thinner than 0.025 millimeters thick as of June 1—and no one seems prepared. "I don't know what we'll do," Zhang Gui Lin, a tailor at Shanghai's famous fabric market, tells me through a translator. "I guess our shopping complex will figure it out and tell us what to buy to use as bags."

His wife adds: "Maybe it will be like this," tugging a thicker mesh orange plastic bag she is using to carry some shoes. Such thicker bags may prove one replacement for the ubiquitous thinner versions.

The clothes makers are not alone. "I don't know actually," says a vendor of Chinese tamales, known as zong zi, who declined to give her name. "I'm sure the government will come up with a solution. Maybe people will just eat it [the zong zi directly.]"

The Chinese government is banning production and distribution of the thinnest plastic bags in a bid to curb the white pollution that is taking over the countryside. The bags are also banned from all forms of public transportation and "scenic locations." The move may save as much as 37 million barrels of oil currently used to produce the plastic totes, according to China Trade News. Already, the nation's largest producer of such thin plastic bags, Huaqiang, has shut down its operations.

The effort comes amid growing environmental awareness among the Chinese people and mimics similar efforts in countries like Bangladesh and Ireland as well as the city of San Francisco, though efforts to replicate that ban in other U.S. municipalities have foundered in the face of opposition from plastic manufacturers.

More than one million reusable cloth bags have already been sold on various Chinese merchandising Web sites, according to Taobao.com, and local environmental groups, such as Shanghai Roots & Shoots, are promoting and giving away cloth bags in schools.

"Too many plastic bags is a great waste of natural resources," retired Communist Party cadre Liu Zhidong says through a translator. "When burnt, they produce poisoning smoke, and if buried underneath the ground they need more than 300 years to be degraded."

But it remains to be seen how strong enforcement will be. Specific penalties have not been set but will include fines. Other environmental efforts—such as a similar ban on disposable wooden chopsticks (a waster of trees) and so-called "green GDP," or gross domestic product, an effort to account for environmental costs when calculating overall economic development— fell by the wayside because they proved too difficult to implement and created significant opposition at the local level. It also remains to be seen whether some of the possible replacements—thicker or biodegradable plastic bags—will be any better.

"This is a very good measure to protect the environment. However, whether it can last long is still very doubting," chemistry graduate student Oliver says. "And another problem is [that] the so-called biodegradable plastic bags, it seems, cannot be totally degraded. Whether or not they are really good for environment protection in the long run remains unknown."

Yet, the ban enjoys enthusiastic support from many residents here, particularly students, who may not even recall the more traditional practice of cloth bags or baskets. "I will just carry the things by my hands," one young man told me on the campus of Shanghai International Studies University. "I will never use the plastic bags supplied in supermarkets and I'll ask my friends not to use them, too."

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