/ Environment China

Revving up the fight against plastic bag usage
Updated: 2006-06-19 08:39

What clogs waterways, harms bird and marine life, can be found in abundance in the city and the most remote parts of China and takes millions of years to disappear?

The answer is plastic bags. It is hard to imagine that something that seems so harmless could be doing so much damage to the environment both in China and globally.

Throughout the world 1 trillion bags are used a year, which accounts for over a million a minute. And considering it takes years for them to decompose, the global fight to limit the usage of plastic bags needs to be revved up a notch or two.

Plastic bags not only cause visual pollution, who hasn't been witness to plastic bags strewn across riverbanks, floating in waterways and clinging to trees, but they also clog drains which can lead to flooding in urban areas.

Wildlife in the marine environment, such as birds and seals, are dying from intestinal blockages resulting from ingesting the bags.

The scary thing is that for something that impacts so heavily on the environment, the majority of people don't give plastic bags a second thought. Often they are used only once and thrown out or discarded as litter.

This litter in China has been dubbed white pollution, as it is regularly seen blowing around the streets.

A push to draw the public's attention to the issue has wielded some positive results - a few years ago it would have been an anomaly to see shoppers carrying home their shopping in cloth bags, but it is happening in China's capital Beijing.

This is due to recent campaigns such as major supermarkets in Beijing providing their customers with reusable cloth bags, and different regions embracing No Plastic Bag Days.

Other supermarkets in Beijing are opting for degradable plastic bags.

By simply cutting down on the number of bags you use, reusing bags and encouraging your friends, family and colleagues to follow your example, you will be playing an important role in environmental protection in China.

An increasing number of people worldwide are refusing to use plastic bags and opting for alternatives.

People use backpacks and sports bags from home to carry their shopping, as well as environmentally friendly substitutes.

Two such bags are polypropylene bags manufactured from polypropylene gas, a by-product of oil refining, and calico bags made from cotton.

Polypropylene bags have a lifespan of up to three years and can be recycled, and calico bags last for one year. Both can hold more shopping than plastic bags.

The use of plastic bags as bin liners is a common practice in households but does not make good environmental sense as the bags still end up in land fills, taking years to decompose.

More people are choosing to use oxo-biodegradable bin liners. Oxo-biodegradable products have a special additive added in their manufacturing process that reduces the molecular weight of the plastic and gives microbes access to the carbon and hydrogen within.

The material changes from plastic to a food source, with many farmers using oxo-biodegradable plastics as compost.

One of the options being bandied around in Beijing at the moment to help alleviate the problems arising from plastic bags is a plastic bag tax. With the tax aimed at cutting demand for plastic bags and raising money to address pollution caused by them.

If the Ministry of Finance's feasibility study for the introduction of the tax proves viable, this coupled with further environmental campaigns promoting awareness and education on plastic bags and the government encouraging both retailers and consumers to use environmentally friendly and degradable bags will greatly reduce the negative impacts of plastic bags.

All of the above strategies must be implemented in order for this vast problem to be adequately addressed.

A tax on plastic bags does impact on usage, contrary to some points of view that most people are unwilling to give up the convenience of plastic bags and won't mind paying for the privilege, Ireland reduced its plastic bag usage by 95 per cent after introducing a 15 per cent levy on plastic bags in 2002.

Raising awareness among retailers and consumers is central to reducing plastic bag litter and saving resources.

So the next time a supermarket attendant or shopkeeper goes to give you a plastic bag for a small item, remember that the bag will long outlive you, and ask yourself if you really want our legacy to future generations to be a big mess to clean up.

We are paying a big price environmentally for the sheer convenience of plastic bags, and when you look at the devastation they are causing to our environment, it's really not worth it.

(China Daily 06/19/2006 page8)