BEIJING – Declaring war on the “white pollution” choking its cities, farms and waterways, China is banning free plastic shopping bags and calling for a return to the cloth bags of old – steps largely welcomed by merchants and shoppers Wednesday.
The measure eliminates the flimsiest bags and forces stores to charge for others, making China the latest nation to target plastic bags in a bid to cut waste and conserve resources.
Beijing residents appeared to take the ban in stride, reflecting rising environmental consciousness and concern over skyrocketing oil prices.
“If we can reduce waste and save resources, then it’s good both for us and the whole world,” said college student Xu Lixian, who was buying tangerines out of cardboard boxes at a sidewalk stall.
The ban takes effect June 1, barely two months before Beijing hosts the Summer Olympic Games, ahead of which it has been demolishing run-down neighborhoods and working to clear smog. The games have added impetus to a number of policies and projects, likely boosting odds for the bag ban’s implementation.
Under the new rules, businesses will be prohibited from manufacturing, selling or using bags less than 0.025 millimeters (0.00098 inches) thick, according to the order issued by the State Council, China’s Cabinet. The council’s orders constitute the highest level of administrative regulation, and follow-through is carefully monitored.
More-durable plastic bags still will be permitted for sale by markets and shops.
The regulation, dated Dec. 31 and posted on a government Web site Tuesday, called for “a return to cloth bags and shopping baskets to reduce the use of plastic bags.”
It also urged waste collectors to step up recycling efforts to reduce the amount of bags burned or buried. Finance authorities were told to consider tax measures to discourage plastic bag production and sale.
Internationally, legislation to discourage plastic bag use has been passed in parts of South Africa, Ireland and Taiwan, where authorities either tax shoppers who use them or impose fees on companies that distribute them. Bangladesh already bans them, as do at least 30 remote Alaskan villages.
Last year, San Francisco became the first U.S. city to ban petroleum-based plastic bags in large grocery stores. In France, supermarket chains have begun shying away from giving away plastic bags and German stores must pay a recycling fee if they wish to offer them. Ireland’s surcharge on bags imposed in 2003 has been credited with sharply reducing demand.
In New York on Wednesday, the City Council approved a bill requiring large stores to provide bins for recycling plastic bags. The stores must also use bags that read: “Please return this bag to a participating store for recycling.” Mayor Michael Bloomberg supports the measure and is expected to sign it.
China’s move won praise from environmental organizations including Greenpeace, which issued a statement welcoming the ban.
“The State Council’s announcement to ban free plastic bags is a perfect case to combine the two of the major forces in environment protection: public participation and government policy guidance,” Greenpeace said.
Christopher Flavin, president of Worldwatch Institute, an independent research organization in Washington, said “China is ahead of the U.S. with this policy.”
“They have had problems enforcing programs in the past, but this is easy to enforce because it has to be implemented on the retail level,” Flavin said. “It won’t be 100 percent on the first day, but in general, if you come back a year from now you will find this will be enforced and in place.”