The state edict was designed to achieve a total ban on the manufacture, distribution and use of plastic bags with a thickness of less than 0.025mm, also known as “superthins”. It also stipulated that all retail outlets – including supermarkets, malls and farmers’ markets – hand out plastic bags solely in return for a fee. The directive also included a ban on the handing out of superthins anywhere transport-related, including on trains, planes and ships, as well as at airports, railway stations and tourist hotspots. In addition, the decree called for the promotion of plastic bag recycling activities. Judging by the wording of the document it appears that the government means business in controlling the spread of “white pollution”.
Four departments have been charged with jointly executing this directive and policing its progress: the National Development and Reform Council (NDRC, Beijing; http://en.ndrc.gov.cn), the Ministry of Commerce (MofCom, Beijing; http://english.mofcom.gov.cn), the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ, Beijing; http://english.aqsiq.gov.cn), and the State Administration for Industry and Commerce (SAIC, Beijing; www.saic.gov.cn/english).
Far from being a total ban on plastic bags, the government said the directive was aimed at encouraging the voluntary reduction and control of plastic waste. By banning superthin bags, which cannot be used multiple times, the state said it was in fact promoting the usage of thicker and more durable alternatives that can be reused several times before being disposed.
An NDRC report released in 2011 found that the plastic bag curb directive in principle had been implemented across the country. In the three years that had passed since its introduction, the report found, major supermarkets, malls and retail outlets across the country succeeded at cutting back their plastic bags consumption by two-thirds or more than 24 bn single bags. That number is tantamount to 600,000 t plastic, or 3.6m t of crude oil. At the same time, 2.15 bn sub-standard plastic bags were confiscated, and 129 small-scale superthin bag producers were shut down.
This progress notwithstanding, the NDRC’s report also pointed out ongoing problems, including the public’s disengagement from the directive as well as the continuation of superthin bag production. The study found that after having their operations shut down, many thin bag producers resumed their illegal operations, often under the cover of night. The latter problem, the council said, was related not only to the low manufacturing requirements and the quick buck made by such bags, but also to poor policing.
In its report, the NDRC said the government was mulling an extension of the ban to include restaurants, bookshops and hospitals as well. The council also said that any retailer found in violation of the decree would be held responsible and fined.
Farmers’ markets are particularly resistant to the ban. Here, shoppers get all their foodstuffs – whether meat, eggs, vegetables or toothbrushes – “gift-wrapped” in a plastic bag completely free of charge. Sellers are reluctant to charge customers who buy something for CNY 4 (about EUR 0.50) with CNY 0.30 for a plastic bag, fearing it will drive their clients away. Not surprisingly, superthins continue to be very popular in the countryside.
A 2011 survey conducted by the Beijing-based non-governmental group EnviroFriends found that it was near impossible to find superthin bags in the capital’s leading supermarket chains and large shopping malls, although the latter still give bags away for many purchases. By contrast, the illegal bags are still flooding the farmers’ markets, where they are mostly handed out for free.
Looking more closely at the latter, the report found that in 2008, 20% of the capital’s farmers’ markets charged for plastic bags, while 9% buried the charge in the product price and 71% handed the superthins out for free. Three years on, EnviroFriends found that only 14% of the farmers’ markets surveyed charged for the plastic bags, meaning more than 80% continue to give them away.
Many media have reported about a gradual decline in compliance with the directive since the end of 2011, pointing out that sub-standard or banned plastic bags are finding their way back on to the retail counters.
The poll found that Beijing-based markets complied more readily with the decree than those based in the other two provinces. Of the 10 farmers’ markets surveyed in the capital, 80% used plastic bags manufactured under the central supervision and inspection of the market’s management, with relatively clear labelling. None of the five farmers’ markets polled in Guangdong used standardized/regulated plastic bags. Instead, more than 70% of the plastic bags handed out here were not labelled and thinner than 0.025mm. The association’s survey of two Zhejiang-based farmers’ markets found that here, too, most plastic bags used were sub-standard, not labelled and superthin.
Contrary to the farmers’ markets, the supermarkets surveyed all obliged with the Plastic Bag Curb Directive, with all 20 of the chains polled charging customers for bags. Only four of the 24 samples collected were inadequately labelled, while all bags were of a higher quality and capable of being reused several times.
The report found that street vendors and hawkers ignore the ban altogether, giving away superthins for free without regard to food packaging safety regulations.