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[GreenYes] China Sacks Plastic Bags Ban could save 37 million barrels of oil and alleviate

May 23, 2008
China Sacks Plastic Bags
Ban could save 37 million barrels of oil and alleviate "white pollution"

By David Biello

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 si wu
le, 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 si, 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 si 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, 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."

San Diego, California

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