A man dressed as Charlie Chaplin is on a mission. He waddles around the city of Zhengzhou twirling his cane and trying to persuade shoppers at a vegetable bazaar not to use plastic bags, writes the Henan Commercial News. When Chaplin (a local farmer) is not grinning and miming at the shopping crowd, he also puts up posters advocating his cause.
It might seem a gargantuan objective, but luckily Charlie is not alone.
In June last year, the Chinese government prohibited the production of ultra-thin bags of 0.025mm in thickness, while requiring shoppers at supermarkets to pay for sturdier ones.
By doing so, it aims to curb the country’s “white pollution,” the popular term for plastic bag and Styrofoam packaging waste.
“Plastic shopping bags, due to reasons such as excessive use and inefficient recycling, have caused serious energy and resources waste and environment pollution,” China’s State Council says.
The surprise move – which is also a far more expansive policy objective than has been implemented in other countries – has been interpreted as a sign of China’s growing environmental awareness.
According to the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), the country’s top economic planner, China is suffocating in plastic.
Every day about 1,300 tonnes of crude oil is needed just to make plastic bags given out by domestic supermarkets. And most of them end up in unofficial dumping sites, landfills or floating in rivers. Scientists reckon that it can take more than 200 years for the bags to dissolve in the natural environment, with water, land and wildlife all facing widespread contamination in the meantime.
The new policy has saved 40 billion plastic bags in the year since the ban was introduced, says the China Chain Store and Franchise Association.
Retailers across the country are embracing the ban. Walmart’s 106 stores in China reportedly distributed 80% fewer plastic bags in the past year, and IKEA and Carrefour are reporting falls of similar numbers, says the Beijing Times.
However, the situation at local wet markets – traditionally a prime source of flimsy plastic bag use – has hardly improved.
According to the Shanghai Daily, vendors in the city wet markets complain that charging even a few jiao (a few US cents) for each bag would increase the total cost of their produce by too much for their customers.
As a result, over a third of the vendors are still offering free (but now illegal) plastic carriers to their customers.
The countryside is also proving more resistant to the new government measures than the cities.
In a recent survey conducted by Beijing-based non-governmental organisation Global Village, more than 80% of retail outlets in rural areas routinely ignored the ban.
Wen Hengfeng, project manager of Global Village, said: “It’s easier to monitor supermarkets but the countryside is a different proposition.”
So to curb plastic bag pollution in the countryside, the State Administration of Industry and Commerce (SAIC) promised to enforce the national regulation more vigorously. Offenders will be punished: the government department is threatening fines of up to Rmb10,000 ($1,470) for those who disobey the new initiative.
But the country’s war against white pollution is not without victims. Two months after the ban was implemented, Suiping Huaqiang Plastic, the country’s biggest plastic bag manufacturer, was forced to shut down. It had employed 20,000 people and produced 250,000 tonnes of bags annually.
“Over 90% of our products are on the [prohibited] list, so the only way forward for the factory is closure,” a helpless manager at Suiping said to Xinhua.
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