China Watch: Plastic Bag Ban Trumps Market and Consumer Efforts

China's recent plastic bag ban has been immediately accepted by consumers. In a country where billions of plastic bags are used each day, the government's top-down policy move will likely benefit the country's environment and energy security well before market forces or consumer-led efforts are able to achieve similar impact.

The ban prohibits shops, supermarkets, and sales outlets from handing out free plastic bags and bans the production, sale, and use of ultra-thin plastic bags under 0.025 millimeters thick. It took effect nationwide on June 1.

Plastic bags, a seemingly minor commodity, have mobilized four powerful government departments in China. The State Council, China's cabinet, issued the bag ban earlier this year, and in May, shortly before its implementation, three other departments stepped in and imposed an auxiliary ruling to enforce the directive. The Ministry of Commerce, National Development and Reform Commission, and State Administration for Industry and Commerce set forth detailed stipulations on implementation and enforcement in the ruling, known as Administrative Measures for the Paid Use of Plastic Bags at Commodity Retailing Places.

China's central government dealt this heavy blow to plastic bags out of concern for the environment and a desire for greater energy savings. People in China use up to 3 billion plastic bags daily and dispose of more than 3 million tons of them annually. Most of the carriers end up in unofficial dumping sites, landfills, or the environment. Urban dumping centers and open fields alongside railways and expressways are littered with the discarded bags, mostly whitish ultra-thin varieties. Such scenes have generated a special term in China: "the white pollution."

Plastic bags consume a huge quantity of oil, an energy source that in recent months has hovered at more than $100 per barrel on international markets. Experts estimate that China refines nearly 5 million tons (37 million barrels) of crude oil each year to make plastics used for packaging.

The twin pressures of environment protection and energy security have galvanized China's policymakers to take a strong stance, with an immediate initial result. Reports note that use of plastic bags in supermarkets in southern Guangzou City has dropped by nearly half since June 1, and some supermarkets in Beijing use as few as one-tenth the number of bags as before the ban.

Shoppers have embraced the ban without significant complaint, despite sacrificing some degree of shopping convenience. Older generations have reminiscently turned back to the woven baskets or plain cloth bags they used before plastic alternatives entered the Chinese market in the 1980s. Younger people are busy checking out online shops for more fashionable "eco-friendly" bags. Those who do pay for plastic bags are trying to buy as few as possible, foregoing the long-engrained perspective of "better more than fewer" prevalent before the ban.

China's plastic bag policy is instilling a proactive attitude toward energy savings and environmental protection in a country where public environmental awareness is chronically weak. Price is still the paramount factor guiding people's purchases nationwide, and the consumer "green" movement remains a novel phenomenon, often regarded as a pet project of idealistic environmentalists.

The consumer mentality takes time to change. But as pressures on the environment and natural resources continue to rise, it is better to have smart government policies that guide consumer habits, rather than waiting for the market to force these changes. Simply relying on the market and on individual behavior may bring too little too late.

Yingling Liu is manager of the China Program at the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington-D.C. based environmental research organization.