BEIJING: They swirl in the wind, stick around as rubbish for 200 years, and despite the efforts of the Chinese government to reduce their use, are as popular as ever. Three years after Beijing banned shops from offering plastic bags for free, the flimsy carriers are proving an indestructible adversary to government rules.
After early success, efforts to cut plastic bag use stumble as shops offer them free again
By Ho Ai Li, China Correspondent
Checks by green groups showed that more shops are offering free plastic bags than in the past, instead of asking customers to pay, as mandated by the authorities.
'Supermarkets are enforcing this with less zeal now. This policy was best implemented in the first six months, especially during the Olympics,' said Mr Yang Weihe, a waste project manager from non-profit group Enviro Friends.
On June 1, 2008, China tried to bolster its green credentials by stopping shops from offering free plastic bags as the nation geared up for the Olympics. Bags thinner than 0.025mm were also banned, as they tear easily and cannot be re-used as much.
The new rules worked well initially. In 2009, a survey of six cities by Enviro Friends found that eight in 10 supermarkets charged for bags.
This led to supermarkets cutting their use of plastic carriers by two-thirds, according to figures given out by China's National Development and Reform Commission. It meant a saving of at least 24 billion plastic bags a year, the top economic planning body said at a meeting to take stock of the policy over the weekend.
But this is just 2 per cent of the estimated one trillion bags China uses a year, and even this is dropping, as bit by bit, retailers have started to backslide in their vigilance.
Last year, only six in 10 supermarkets were found to be obeying the law.
In smaller cities and remote areas, retailers tend to offer free plastic bags to better compete for customers, said Mr Yang.
'You can't not provide free bags. People come empty-handed, where do they put their vegetables?' said vegetable hawker Wang Fang, 35, in Beijing. 'If I charge for plastic bags, I fear people will complain.'
Consumers usually have to pay 10 to 50 fen (two to 10 Singapore cents) for the bags, but it costs retailers very little to buy them in bulk.
Ms Wang said 50 of them cost just 70 fen, so she will continue to give away the red, blue or white flimsy plastic bags that are a common sight in any vegetable market in Beijing.
Fruit seller Wu Caiyun, 38, said: 'You can't possibly let people go back clutching a heap of fruit in their hands. No one fines me for giving out plastic bags anyway, so why not do so?'
In Shanghai, it is common to see these bags given out freely, reported the Shanghai Daily.
The practice is also returning to wholesale farm produce markets, where the use of plastic bags fell by half when the policy first started. 'In the beginning, there were people checking on this,' Mr Dong Jinshi of China's international food packaging association told The People's Daily. 'But now there aren't any, so we are continuing to use them.'
The government is now chewing over whether to extend the ban to places like hospitals and restaurants, but some observers said it would do better to first enforce the current rules. Public awareness can be stepped up and incentives offered to consumers who do not buy plastic carriers, they added.
Still, despite the setback, the three-year-old policy has made some headway.
Last year, a poll showed that four in 10 people were taking their own bags to the shops, up from one in 10 before the policy started, said Mr Yang.
Some did so because they simply did not want to pay, like retiree Xiao Weiping, 56. He said: 'I don't want to waste money buying a plastic bag. I haven't thought of environmental protection.'
Others said they were happy to do so for a larger cause. Retiree Meng Zhen, 58, said: 'Our environment is already very bad; if we don't help to protect it, it will be too late.'
Additional reporting by Lina Mia