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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

Finally the managers reached a consensus: to promote cotton bags among the consumers. The design of the bags should meet the practical demands of the consumers, being easy to carry, able to hold a certain weight, and no more than 2 yuan ($0.28).

On February 14, six markets held the first promotion of the cotton bags and many customers bought them.

"When I was a child, my mother always took me to the vegetable market with a bamboo basket. She put a bowl in the basket for holding bean curd. When we bought sugar powder or salt, the sellers would wrap them with a piece of paper. I miss those days very much," Jin said. The main purpose of promoting the bags is to encourage the consumers to reuse the materials, he added. Some old living habits should not be thrown away no matter how fast the economy has developed.

"I don't need plastic bags"

Gudang market is just one spot that reflects the changes that the ban is bringing to people's attitudes to plastic bags and environmental protection.

Since shopkeepers began offering the bags more than a decade ago, Chinese consumers have been accustomed to carrying what they buy from shops in free plastic bags. The overuse of the plastic bags has been a big problem for a long time. "When it is windy, the plastic bags fly with the wind everywhere and streets which have just been cleaned are made a mess again," said Lai Zhiqing, a cleaner in Zhongshan City, south China's Guangdong Province.

Dong Jinshi, Vice Chairman of the Waste Plastics Recycling Committee of China Plastics Processing Industry Association (WPRC-CPPIA), said the ban would cut the use of plastics bags by more than 60 percent and raise the recycling rate of one-time plastic bags.

In Shenzhen, a booming city in Guangdong, retailers use at least 1.75 billion plastic bags each year. Most of those bags take 200 years to decompose and some will never do so, according to the local environmental protection department.

Ahead of the national directive, Shenzhen announced as early as November 2007 that it was considering placing fees on the use of plastic bags, with fines from 5,000 to 50,000 yuan ($667 to $6,667) for retailers that gave them away for free.

Large supermarkets such as Wal-Mart have been advocating the use of eco-friendly cotton bags since late 2007. These bags are priced at 3 yuan ($0.42), significantly lower than their production cost, which is usually of around 9 yuan ($1.28), said Huang Li from the company's public relations department.

Huang said the ban would facilitate the promotion of eco-friendly bags and Wal-Mart would look at the issue closely before deciding whether to offer other kinds of substitute bags.

Internationally, legislation to discourage plastic bag use has been passed in many countries, where authorities either tax shoppers who use them or impose fees on companies that distribute them. In the U.S., San Francisco became the first city to ban petroleum-based plastic grocery bags last year. In France, supermarket chains have begun shying away from giving away plastic bags and German stores must pay a recycling fee if they wish to offer them. Ireland's surcharge on bags imposed in 2003 has been credited with sharply reducing demand.

In China, it is becoming a fashion in many places for people to carry cotton bags or bamboo baskets when purchasing goods. There are even cool-designed cotton bags for fashionable young people. In markets, many people are now accustomed to saying, "I don't need plastic bags."

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