Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

Future in the hands of the consumer

By Colin Speakman (China Daily) Updated: 2011-06-01 08:15

Three years ago, I was advising US students who had newly arrived in China that they would need their own bags when shopping in China because grocery stores would no longer provide free bags under new rules introduced in June 2008. I even decided to minimize their cultural adjustment by proudly presenting each of them with a durable cloth bag, sourced from a local chain of convenience stores in cheerful China red.

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The "no free bags" concept was not hard for them to grasp as they had come from a country that was already implementing such policies. In the United States, biodegradable paper has replaced plastic as the material for free bags in many grocery outlets and charges for the environmentally unfriendly kind are commonplace.

Similar policies have evolved in Western Europe and many involve providing incentives for shoppers to use and re-use bags. In the era of electronic points collecting, it was quite easy to equip a durable cloth bag with a bar code, which was then scanned along with the customer's purchases earning points that could then be redeemed for goods. These cloth bags are affordable on first purchase because the store gets free advertising as the bags are regularly used around town and fewer bags need to be stocked as the environmentally friendly habit grows.

Of course there are still plenty of people in the West who go out without a bag and need a plastic one, but those plastic bags are of reasonable quality and often carry a hefty price. I wonder how a local Chinese colleague would feel about paying the equivalent of 1.8 yuan ($0.27) for a modest plastic bag to a London newsagent.

The reduction in use of plastic shopping bags in China has been significant, and it needed to be because China is the No 1 consumer of plastic products in the world. By the end of last year, it was estimated that consumption had been cut in half since the 2008 policy was implemented. The cheapest quality bags at one time given free in stores have been replaced in mainstream outlets by a better quality one for a fee, but these bags are still a threat to the environment and the prices charged for such bags, typically 0.5 yuan, are not a deterrent to their use. Chinese shoppers really lack an incentive to buy, carry and use a durable, foldable cloth bag.

However, the more serious problem is that most small stores, street vendors and markets still provide free bags, flouting the law. Many of these are of the lowest quality and the ones most harmful to the environment. They get discarded quickly and are hard to decompose. The short-term convenience of the shopper has taken center stage over the longer-term environmental benefits for us all. Evidence suggests that 60 percent of all plastic bags, whether the ultra-thin kind or more substantial, are given free to shoppers. Shopkeepers say they have no choice but to provide free bags or customers will go to sellers that will.

Environmental education in schools needs to be strengthened and the public should be made aware of the long-term harm these bags. Also, higher costs must be enforced for plastic bags. Such policies have proved effective in the West with bag consumption, in Ireland for example, reduced by 90 percent. Evidence suggests that consumers get used to the price of bags over time and regular price hikes are needed. If the basis of the price rise is a tax, then the government can use the revenue to fund promotional campaigns. In China, people need to adopt the habit of going shopping with environmentally friendly bags, which can make a statement about protecting China's environment. Arguably, the generation now in schools can be the standard bearers for this.

Let's attack the problem from several sides and also increase the financial penalties for non-compliance (in theory the current fine is 10,000 yuan) and take action against the manufacturers of poor quality non-degradable bags.

The author is an economist with and director of China Programs at CAPA International Education, an American-British institute that cooperates with Capital Normal University, Beijing International Studies University and Shanghai International Studies University.

(China Daily 06/01/2011 page9)

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