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Plastic Bags Suggest Complexity of Green Movement

The line at a Carrefour supermarket cashier moved slowly, since the plastic bags customers brought from home were of many sizes and it took some time to pack their purchases.

Other customers paid for cotton bags being sold at the counter, and yet others paid for plastic bags.

An assistant at a Wal-mart in northern Beijing told Xinhua that only 10 percent of their customers had bought plastic bags and the rest brought their own bags since June 1, the first day of new limits on plastic bags.

"Before June 1, Carrefour had a special counter for customers who did not want free bags and usually there were few people. So the policy of no free bags does help people to reuse plastic bags," said Yuan Yuan, a 31-year-old frequent supermarket customer.

She agreed that it was troublesome for customers but said it was worth doing to protect the environment. "I have tried to do it for a long time, even before the government policy."

But not everyone was as prepared as Yuan. Li Hui, in her 20s, paid 0.5 yuan (7 US cents) for a plastic bag at a Watsons drugstore.

"I forgot that there were no free bags at shops anymore. I should have brought bags myself but, you know, we have gotten used to free bags and it takes time for people to adapt to the new policy," she said.

Li also suggested that the government should do more to get the message across to the public.

Yuan had the same idea. "It is a good move and more publicity, such as non-profit advertising, should be used to publicize the idea of environmental protection behind the policy instead of just implementing a government regulation."

Environmentalists applaud the policy but are concerned about public misconceptions.

"Charging is the best way to reduce the use of plastic bags. You can't count on everyone to have high awareness," said Wen Hengfeng, program coordinator of the Plastic Bags Reduction Network (PBRN) that was launched by the Beijing-based environmental organization Global Village.

But she expressed concern that people might not be fully aware of the significance of no free bags. Charging for plastic bags didn't mean that they could not be used at all; the point was to use fewer and re-use them as much as possible.

It was possible that people would get used to paying a small amount of money for bags and continue wasting them, she said.

Some shops had decided to offer paper or degradable poly bags instead of plastic ones. Many regarded this to be eco-friendly.

"Any substitutes for plastic bags will have a negative environmental impact if they are used only once and consumers do not end the habit of wasting things," Wen said.

Thinking lags policy changes

It takes time for a policy to change minds, however.

Retailers are still allowed to offer free bags for goods sold in bulk, such as vegetables and fresh meat, for the sake of sanitation. Some people are using these even though they have their own bags.

And there's the matter of cost. At a small grocery near the Carrefour, the shopkeeper still offered customers free plastic bags. As he said: "I sold vegetables worth 0.7 yuan. How can I charge 0.5 yuan for a bag?" His customers were not refusing the bags.

A survey last year found that environmental awareness was one thing; the will to act was another.

The China Environment Culture Promotion Association surveyed 9,011 people aged 18 to 65 from 31 provincial capitals and villages. Pollution ranked second among nine problems people cared about most and 66.9 percent thought the country faced serious environmental problems, said the survey report.

But only 13.7 percent thought they could play an important role in environmental protection while about half said their role was small.

"This showed that many Chinese are not ready to take an active part in doing something to protect the environment. They are inclined to look to the government, organizations or enterprises," the report said.

Beijing, which will host the Olympic Games in two months, is working out "green" policies including sorting waste, setting maximum and minimum temperatures for air conditioning, using energy-saving light and encouraging people to take public transport.

Since last month, communities had to sort waste by setting up separate garbage cans for kitchen waste, recyclable waste like glass and plastic bottles, and toxic waste. But very few Beijing families sorted their waste at home.

The policies might face similar problems as the plastic bag campaign: how to change people's minds and how to balance cost against convenience so as to live a sustainable lifestyle.

Where the money goes

The PBRN participated in a hearing about charging for plastic bags in supermarkets on the campus of Beijing-based Renmin University in December. Its staff were surprised to find that 60 percent of college students, who were thought to support the policy, went against it.

They were concerned about where the money from bag sales would go, Wen said.

"I don't think retailers should profit from the no-free-bag policy. Actually their cost falls and customers pay for environmental protection," said Yuan.

Environmental groups had suggested the government set up a foundation based on charges on plastic bags.

(Xinhua News Agency June 6, 2008)

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