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Ban on Free Plastic Bags Takes Effect

Wang Yali is busy packing her groceries at a supermarket as usual. However, something is different today: she doesn't put her goods into plastic shopping bags, but stuffed them all into her own bag.

From Sunday on, all Chinese retailers, including supermarkets, department stores and grocery stores, would no longer provide free plastic shopping bags. China will try to reduce the use of plastic bags in a bid to reduce energy consumption and polluting emissions.

"It doesn't matter how much the plastic shopping bag costs. What matters is our sense for environmental protection," Wang said.

A woman who only gave her surname as Zhang stuffed groceries into a bag that cost her 0.2 yuan (0.02 US cents) at a Wal-Mart outlet in Shenzhen, a booming city in the south China’s Guangdong Province.

"I would have put them in two bags before," she said.

"Customers are encouraged to carry their own bags," an official with the Ministry of Commerce, Men Xiaowei, said in an on-line interview earlier. "It is a 'habit revolution.' To limit the use of plastic bags is to protect our environment."

Chinese have enjoyed free plastic shopping bags for more than a decade. Those shopping bags used to bring lots of conveniences to Chinese shoppers. However, they also caused a heavy burden to the environment.

According to an estimate by the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), the country's top economic planner, each two people would consume one plastic bag in one day. At least 1,300 tons of oil would be consumed daily to produce the shopping bags for supermarkets alone.

In addition, China has banned ultra-thin plastic bags, or those thinner than 0.025 mm.

"Plastic bags are difficult to be degraded," Men said. "The plastic waste accounted for more than 3 to 5 percent of the daily waste, most of which came from plastic bags."

Retailers have begun to charge fees, ranging from 0.2 yuan for small sized plastic bags to more than 10 yuan for fabric ones, for the shopping bags.

Many supermarkets, including Wal-Mart, Carrefour and Jian-Mart, have established green paths for those carrying their own bags.

Retailers providing free plastic bags could be fined up to 10,000 yuan

Retailers are free to set prices for shopping bags. However, they must not be cheaper than the costs.

"Retailers worried that they might lose customers if they charge too much for shopping bags," Men said. "But our goal is to reduce the use of plastic bags. The selling price of plastic bags must not be cheaper than their costs."

Ma Fengluan, a plastic bag wholesaler, said the medium-sized, ultra-thin plastic bags that carried 6 kg were 0.06 yuan each, and a thicker one of the same size cost only 0.15 yuan. The difference was too small to be noticed for customers.

Retailers who did not list shopping bags on the receipts or continued to provide free plastic shopping bags would be fined from 5,000 yuan to 10,000 yuan, the State Administration for Industry and Commerce (SAIC) said.

In addition, the administration would conduct a special campaign as of June 1 over plastic shopping bag providers. "Department stores, supermarkets, grocery stores and plastic bag retailers would be our emphasis during the campaign," the SAIC said.

Forming new shopping habits

The regulation, aimed at reducing the one-time use of plastic bags, would help to curb the "white pollution" and conserve resources.

But it may not be easy for all Chinese to quit this convenient way of shopping and return to using their own shopping bags and baskets, or in buying them from shopkeepers in the short term.

"I forgot to bring a bag with me when I left for shopping this morning," a woman surnamed Jiao said while paying for her groceries, and subsequently her plastic bags, at a Beijing grocery store.

Other people preferred holding items in their hands rather than buying bags.

Dong Jinshi, an expert with the country's Plastics Association, said the purpose of the ban was not for charging fees, but instead promoting "green" consumption among people and encouraging them to protect the environment in their daily lives.

"People have been accustomed to using shopping bags since the 1980s when shopkeepers began to hand out free ones," said Liu Cong, a resident of the scenic city of Guiling, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. "So it's unrealistic to make them change their habits in a short period."

The public needs time to thoroughly understand the significance of the law and voluntarily abide by it, he added.

"People's sense of environment protection has been growing, but taking action on the direction is another thing," said Zhang Boju, a researcher with Friends of Nature, a non-governmental organization.

Only 20 percent of those surveyed who agreed with environment protection initiatives took actions in their daily lives, Liu said, citing a poll his organization conducted.

Another survey conducted by the Social Survey Institute of China on 1,000 people in 10 major cities, including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, showed 69.2 percent held the rule would have only limited impact on environmental protection as many would still use plastic bags despite having to pay for them.

Experts said in adjusting to the new rule there would be "intermittent pains" for some people. "If customers could change their habit of using plastic bags and pick up baskets again, the environment could be greatly improved."

They said retailers could sell shopping bags at a higher price, so to make customers shift from "passively receiving the rule to actively refusing plastic bags."

Violations remain

In Jinan, capital of Shandong Province, a middle-aged woman said she just bought some tomatoes at an open market where thin plastic bags were still available. Vendors there still handed out free bags for fear that the additional cost would drive customers away.

Some owners of roadside stores in the area said the new regulation seemed only mandatory in big supermarkets and no one paid serious attention to them.

"I lost 10 sales this morning just because of the 0.5 yuan fee for bags," said Xu Chengfeng, a vegetable seller at Jinxianghe market in Nanjing, capital of Jiangsu Province.

According to the ban, those who provide shoppers with free plastic bags could be fined up to 10,000 yuan as of Sunday.

SAIC officials told Xinhua on Sunday a two-month overhaul would be launched among all plastic bag distributors and regular patrols in supermarkets and various stores would be conducted. The public was welcome to report violators to the administration to help with the monitoring efforts.

"We need more staff to monitor all market places in effort to fully implement the regulation," Li Qiang, a Jiangsu Provincial Bureau of Industry and Commerce official, said.

"Limiting consumption of plastic bags is just one method to curb white pollution," said Wang Zhongwu, a Shandong University sociology professor.

The academic called on relative departments to work out other measures, including offering substitutes for plastic bags, promoting education among public and improving trash recycling systems, to facilitate the implementation of the regulation.

(Xinhua News Agency June 1, 2008)

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