China just joined the war on plastic bags, making it the largest country to target them on a nationwide level. Ordering a ban on ultrathin bags and free shopping bags as of June 1, the directive has spurred hot debates and wide concern regarding enforcement.
Much to your surprise, probably, China already has experience in limiting plastic bags. Some municipalities, mostly tourism hotspots, have implemented similar rules for up to seven years.
Take Lijiang, which launched a ``ban white'' campaign in 2003. It shut down plastic bag wholesalers in the first 10 days, local newspapers said. Next, authorities checked all the paper, cloth, and degradable plastic bags, and polystyrene lunch boxes. In the last stage, the ``compulsory execution period,'' supermarkets, stores, open markets and restaurants were ambushed and the bags confiscated.
Lijiang's government admitted the ban put the city's only plastics processor, a bag maker, out of business. Retailers also had to swallow the loss of confiscated and discarded bags in inventory.
I doubt Beijing will take the ambush route. As host of the Summer Olympic Games, Beijing is working on a smoother method. Suggestions have been solicited from owners of midsize and large supermarkets and farmers' markets. Likewise, comments will be collected on plastic bag market-entry standards. All product standards and inspection methods will be established by June 1.
The government also will set a minimum charge for plastic shopping bags. According to consumer polls, the price will determine whether overall use of the bags will decrease. Retailers in Beijing already are taking actions. French supermarket giant Carrefour plans to give away nonwoven fabric bags with purchases of at least $27. Appliance chain store Suning Corp. is offering free paper bags.
But the purchasing behavior of Chinese consumers is wildly different from those of U.S. consumers. Chinese families still go grocery shopping each day for fresh produce, meat and fish. Hoping people will take a wicker basket to work in the morning for their daily shopping on the way home is not very realistic. Cloth bags don't go well with unpackaged Tofu and freshly made noodles.
Another large roadblock is the imbalanced economic conditions in different regions. A per-bag charge of about 4 U.S. cents, as some national trade groups suggest, doesn't mean the same in boomtown Shenzhen as in a remote inland village. A nationwide policy makes no sense. Also, monitoring street vendors that sell steamed bread is a completely different story than watching Wal-Mart stores. And if the vendor says the bag charge is included in the price of the bread, what can you say? There's no price written anywhere and you don't get an itemized receipt for your 5 cent bread.
When things get this complicated, it's usually a bad sign for enforcement. But that's China's reality.
My guess is that many retailers will work the bag fee into the equation so that consumers pay more or less the same. The other possibility is that people will change their habits and replace plastic bags with alternative packaging. We'll have to wait and see.
Nina Ying Sun is a Plastics News staff reporter and Asia specialist.