Chinese Government Battles Pollution With Ban on Free Plastic Shopping Bags

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 on Wednesday.

The nationwide 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 from 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 nationwide will be prohibited from manufacturing, selling or using bags less than 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 will still 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 grocery bags. In France, supermarket chains have begun shying away from giving away free 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 massively reducing demand.

The elderly proprietor of a combined clothing shop and grocery shop, who gave only his surname, Wang, said the measure could reduce sales initially but would be beneficial in the long run.

"It's a bother, but these bags really do create a lot of pollution, so it should be a good thing," said Wang. He said the measure would make little difference to his costs since he spends $1.35 a month on bags.

Xu, the college student, said the move showed China was serious about joining global efforts to stem environmental deterioration.

"I think this really shows that China is being a responsible country," said the 21-year-old.

Employees at larger supermarkets and convenience stores said they were unclear on the measure and did not know what their employers' response would be.

The regulation comes as Beijing steps up efforts to fight pollution that has accompanied China's breakneck economic growth. Factories and plants that churn out low-cost products for the world's consumers have severely fouled the country's air and water.

The order continues a years-old campaign against plastic waste, or "white pollution," that initially targeted the plastic foam lunch boxes whose decaying shells were once ubiquitous on the Chinese landscape.

Shopkeepers started handing out cheap, flimsy plastic bags to customers about 15 years ago, roughly the same time that China shifted from being a net oil exporter to being a net importer. In recent years, large Western or Japanese style supermarkets have begun to supplant traditional markets, eliminating the need for shoppers to bring along their own carrier bags.

"Our country consumes a huge amount of plastic shopping bags each year," the State Council said in a statement accompanying the regulation.

"While plastic shopping bags provide convenience to consumers, this has caused a serious waste of energy and resources and environmental pollution because of excessive usage, inadequate recycling and other reasons," the statement said.

Plastic shopping bags are given out with even the smallest items, although the statement gave no estimates as to the specific number of bags consumed in China or the potential savings in terms of the petroleum used to produce them.

In the United States, which has less than one quarter of China's 1.3 billion people, the Sierra Club's Sierra magazine estimates almost 100 billion plastic bags are thrown out each year. The Sierra Club estimated that if every one of New York City's 8 million people used one less grocery bag per year, it would reduce waste by about 5 million pounds.

In New York on Wednesday, the City Council was set to vote on a measure that would require large stores to recycle plastic bags.

Environmental group Greenpeace issued a statement welcoming China's attempt to tackle one of the more visible of its myriad environmental problems.

"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 in a statement e-mailed to The Associated Press.