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UPDATED: April 11, 2008 NO.16 APR.17, 2008
Plastic, Not So Fantastic
China is switching to re-useable cotton bags and bamboo baskets as the deadline of a plastic bag ban nears

Wang Shumei, a resident of Hangzhou City, Zhejiang Province, goes to Gudang vegetable and poultry market near her house every morning. Recently she began carrying a red cotton bag with her and refuses to use the plastic bags provided by the retailers. "My daughter gave me this bag and it is much easier to carry than the plastic bags," said Wang.

Four years ago Gudang was one of the first markets in China to begin using 100 percent degradable plastic bags. Now it is trying to delete the usage of plastic bags and advocating customers to use cotton bags or bamboo baskets, following a new ban on the free use of plastic bags that was issued recently.

The ban, which was issued by the General Office of the State Council on the production, sale and use of ultra-thin bags (defined as less than 0.025 mm thick), will come into effect on June 1. According to the ban, shoppers at supermarkets, shopping malls and markets across the country will have to pay for plastic bags. The production, sale and use of ultra-thin plastic bags will be outlawed completely.

Poisonous material

"It really is a tough task, but no more difficult than when we advocated the use of degradable plastic bags four years ago, and we finally introduced that," said Jin Chang, the manager of Gudang market, with confidence.

In February 2004, Jin was shocked by a CCTV program, which showed that some cheap plastic bags are made from used medicine apparatus and could contain poisonous chemicals. He gathered the retailers from the market in his office and told them about the program. "The bags could be unhealthy for customers and even for yourselves, to stop using the plastic bags will surely be good for your health," he said.

Several days later the market signed a responsibility contract with 185 retailers in the market. According to the contract, all the retailers must use degradable plastic bags. Half a month after that, degradable plastic bags had completely replaced the old non-degradable ones, and the market was listed as a tourist spot for foreign visitors.

"The ban has released a burden for the retailers. The total usage of the plastic bags will be reduced by at least half since they will not be provided free of charge any more," said Jin.

Jin has counted the total number of the plastic bags in this market. The 2,000-square-meter market uses 1.5 million plastic bags every year, and the total price of the plastic bags is around 350,000 yuan ($50,000).

"Besides banning free plastic bags we need to find a material that can replace them, that neither adds to consumer costs or does harm to the environment and food safety," said Jin. At the beginning of February, Jin organized the managers of five other markets in Hangzhou to discuss promoting alternative bags in their markets.

Questions posed at the meeting included: What bag would be suitable for soft or strong smelling food? And what if retailers want to provide free plastic bags?

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