And Finally

Excess baggage

Efforts to curtail plastic bag usage fail because law is largely ignored

Excess baggage

Bags under her eyes

Enforcing environmental rules can prove difficult in China. Efforts to wean consumers off plastic bags are a good example.

Last week was the third anniversary of legislation banning shops and supermarkets from giving away free plastic bags to shoppers.

When the law was passed, plastic bags were choking drains and overwhelming landfills. But incinerating them meant releasing toxic dioxins. So policymakers opted to target the problem at source by charging people for using plastic. It was supposed to force shoppers to choose reusable alternatives but things haven’t always worked out as well as officials hoped.

The law states that outlets which offer free bags will be fined Rmb10,000. But an investigation by the Shanghai Daily found that the rules were often being breached. At a popular bakery chain, free plastic bags were being given away at a rate of nearly one a minute, according to the newspaper. Management had intended to charge for bags but the plan had not been introduced, said a worker, surnamed Xu.

The NDRC claims that – nationwide – progress has been made with getting supermarkets to charge for bags. But a recent survey by the Food Packaging Association warns that this is still not deterring shoppers from using them. Many are content to pay the fee, which at just 8 cents, is low.

In some supermarkets, plastic bag use has even increased.

“About nine million plastic bags were used in our stores in 2009, a 100% increase on the number used in 2008,” a Chaoshifa supermarket employee told the China Daily.

“The ban was not effective,” explains the China Daily, “because most customers were tending to pay for bags, instead of bringing reusable ones.”

Market stalls and smaller shops present an even bigger challenge for the country’s waste management planners. Not only are they failing to charge customers for bags, they’re still using the forbidden ‘ultra-thin’ variety. (They are typically used only once and then discarded, making them the least eco-friendly plastic bags of all).

“A cup of milk tea is [less than a dollar],” one vendor explained to the China Daily, “if the plastic bag costs [8 cents], customers are not willing to buy the drink.”

So, with China’s waste problem growing, the Ministry of Commerce could soon unveil tougher rules. According to state media reports, bookstores, hospitals and restaurants will all soon have to charge for plastic bags as well. But ultimately, widening the legislation will mean little if it’s not enforced.

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