China Reports 66-Percent Drop in Plastic Bag Use

plastic baleA strict Chinese limit on ultra-thin plastic bags significantly reduced bag-related pollution nationwide during the past year. The country avoided the use of 40 billion bags, according to government estimates.

Plastic bags are commonly found in waterways, on beaches, and in other "unofficial" dumping sites across China. Litter caused by the notorious bags has been referred to as "white pollution."

The State Council, China's parliament, responded in January 2008 by prohibiting shops, supermarkets, and sales outlets from providing free plastic bags that are less than 0.025 millimeters thick.

The State Administration of Industry and Commerce also threatened to fine shopkeepers and vendors as much as 10,000 yuan (US$1,465) if they were caught distributing free bags.

In its first review of the ban, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) announced earlier this month that supermarkets reduced plastic bag usage by 66 percent since the policy became effective last June. The limit in bag production saved China 1.6 million tons of petroleum, the NDRC estimated.

Prior to the ban, an estimated 3 billion plastic bags were used daily across China, creating more than 3 million tons of garbage each year. China consumed an estimated 5 million tons (37 million barrels) of crude oil annually to produce plastics for packaging.

The China Chain Store and Franchise Association undertook an analysis of the ban as well. The association announced earlier this month that foreign-owned and local supermarkets reduced plastic bag usage by 80 and 60 percent, respectively.

"Supermarket consumers are used to bringing along shopping bags and reusing plastic bags," an association statement said. "The awareness of environment is enhanced. The declined usage of plastic bags has no negative effect on the sales of supermarkets."

But compliance with the ban appears to be inconsistent across the country. A survey by Global Village, a Beijing-based environmental group, found that more than 80 percent of retail stores in rural regions continued to provide plastic bags free of charge.

The survey also found that nearly 96 percent of open food markets throughout Beijing continued to provide bags. The policy exempts the use of plastic packaging for raw meat and noodles for hygiene and safety reasons.

The commerce administration enforced the ban through a 600,000-strong army of regulators who inspected some 250,000 retail stores or markets, according to China Daily. The regulators dispensed about 2 million yuan (US$293,000) of fines.

Suiping Huaqiang Plastic, a 20,000-employee bag manufacturer, experienced the ban's economic effects almost immediately. The company went out of business last year, soon after the government announced the plastic bag policy.

Despite backlash from the plastics industry, numerous countries and cities worldwide have adopted bag limits in recent years. Mumbai, India, banned thin plastic bags in 2000 to prevent garbage from clogging storm drains during monsoon season. Bans or taxes have since been adopted in localities including Australia, Ireland, Italy, South Africa, and various U.S. cities. In Tanzania, selling a thin plastic bag risks the maximum penalty of six months in jail and a 1.5 million shilling (US$1,170) fine.

Depnding on its composition, plastic debris can require more than a century to decompose, gradually breaking down into smaller pieces over time. The Pacific Ocean is home to a floating heap of debris estimated to be twice the size of France and to weigh at least 3 million tons.

The world's plastic debris and other refuse is often digested by wildlife and kills an estimated 1 million seabirds per year, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The agency reported earlier this month that plastic, especially plastic bags and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottles, accounts for more than 80 percent of marine litter, the most common source worldwide. The report was the first assessment of marine debris in the world's 12 major sea regions.

Plastics can also damage boats, fishing gear, and agricultural facilities. Phasing-out thin plastic bags at the source is often regarded as a cheaper alternative than removing the debris later by hand or machine, UNEP said.

UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner has recommended that all countries ban thin plastic bags. "Some of the litter, like thin-film single-use plastic bags which choke marine life, should be banned or phased-out rapidly everywhere," Steiner said in a statement earlier this month. "There is simply zero justification for manufacturing them anymore, anywhere."

Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at bblock@worldwatch.org.

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