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Shrinking the Wrapping

China’s new ban on single-use plastic bags is applauded for highlighting excessive plastic waste in express and takeout business, but experts question how far it can go without legal backing

By NewsChina Updated Jun.1

China is implementing new measures to ban single-use plastic bags to combat white pollution. The ban announced by China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) and Ministry of Ecology and Environment on January 19 came after a policy targeting shopping malls and traditional markets proved ineffective. 

Consumers have become so used to paying for plastic bags or being handed them by vendors that they no longer pay attention to the issue of reducing single-use plastics. In addition, the enormous growth in home delivery services, from e-commerce sites to takeout delivery platforms, has increased plastic waste. Any gains made from the initial plastic bag ban have been lost. 

The previous ban that started in 2008 helped save about 70 billion plastic bags from being handed out by retailers between 2008 and 2016, equal to 8.75 billion a year, the State-run China Central Television (CCTV) reported in 2018. In 2016 alone, China’s express delivery industry used some 14.7 billion bags while takeout delivery platforms, Baidu Waimai, Ele.me and Meituan, used 7.3 billion. 

The ban, updated from 2008, includes the delivery and take-out sectors as they pose new pollution challenges. It covers a wider range of plastic products and sets graded goals for different regions. Although an important step to make changes, if there are no supporting policies or legally binding regulations, environmentalists question how effective the new guidelines will be. 

Protracted Battle
One of the largest consumers of plastic products in the world, China has been attempting to reduce plastic waste for the last two decades. In 2001, it banned the production of disposable foam plastic tableware after it was widely used on trains and caused severe pollution. The policy swung back and forth after that, diluting the ban. 

A wider campaign against plastic waste came between 2007 and 2008 when authorities prohibited the production, sale and use of plastic bags less than 0.025 millimeters thick and banned sellers from providing free plastic bags. But many argue these rules were not effective. Xie Xinyuan from the China Zero Waste Alliance (CZWA), an organization focusing on waste treatment, told NewsChina that the ban restricts only plastic bags with handles, with no mention of plastic film wrap or other types of plastic bags in supermarkets.

CZWA found that fresh food markets are the worst for single-use plastics. Since the initial ban on single-use bags 12 years ago, market inspectors would enforce the rules every so often, but sub-standard plastic bags would reappear. 

China has so many shops, farmers markets, restaurants and peddlers that it is unrealistic for regulators to police the use of plastic bags effectively. “Some sellers play a game of peek-a-boo, taking out standard bags for inspection and providing cheaper sub-standard ones behind their backs,” Yang Limin, a teacher at the Shanghai University of International Business and Economics, wrote in an article published in the Journal of Zaozhuang University in 2018. 

Deng Yixiang, a researcher at the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences, attributes the failure in supervision to the blurred separation of duties between environmental, market supervision and farming agencies. He added that previous policies were mainly guiding principles with no legal backing to impose punishments, so enforcement is hard. 

Charging for plastic bags has not been successful over the long term. At first, plastic bag use in shopping malls and supermarkets did shrink drastically. But consumers soon became used to paying for bags, and the price is low, about 0.3 yuan (US$0.04) each, so now more bags are used again. 

Taking into account the outcome of the previous measures, lawmakers started soliciting public opinion on the plastic waste problem on the NDRC website in early 2018. It took two years for the new ban, which was postponed several times, to be applied. 

“The lawmakers spent at least two years learning about plastic,” said an official from the plastic industry association who asked for anonymity, noting that it reflected that more prudence had gone into the new rules. 

New Challenges
The new policy bans the production and sale of disposable plastic tableware and cotton swabs, it bans the production of household products with microbeads, which are widely used in cosmetics and are solid plastic particles less than 1 millimeter in diameter. It also sets a graded timetable, by the end of 2020, 2022 or 2025, for the complete prohibition of different products in regions at different levels of economic development. 

Most importantly, the ban stresses the increasing deluge of plastic waste brought about by the express delivery industry, e-commerce and the takeout sector. In 2019, there were 63.52 billion express deliveries in the Chinese mainland, a year-on-year increase of 25.3 percent, according to China’s State Post Bureau. A survey conducted by NGOs, Greenpeace, Break Free From Plastic and the All-China Environment Federation, found that in 2018, plastic packaging used in deliveries amounted to 851,800 tons, nearly 10 percent of total packaging. 

The use of non-biodegradable plastic packaging and single-use plastic woven bags will be first banned in delivery outlets in places including Beijing, Shanghai and Jiangsu Province and then all plastic, including Scotch tape, will be banned nationwide by the end of 2025, the policy reads. 

Trustdata, a mobile internet data provider, said that turnover in China’s takeout industry in 2019 would reach 603.5 billion yuan (US$85.6b), an increase of 30 percent over 2018, and it keeps rising fast. Greenpeace found that each takeout order uses an average of 3.27 disposable food containers. In that case, if the orders Meituan received daily surpassed 30 million, as its founder Wang Xing revealed in July 2019, then this company alone would consume more than 90 million disposable plastic containers a day. 

Non-biodegradable plastic straws will be banned in restaurants nationwide by the end of 2020, while non-biodegradable plastic tableware in restaurants and takeouts in cities above county level should drop by 30 percent by 2025, says the guideline. 

Challenges in achieving this goal are evident. In September 2017, the Green Volunteer League of Chongqing, an environmental protection organization, sued Baidu Waimai, Ele.me and Meituan for causing severe pollution. After that, Meituan and Ele.me allowed customers to check a box on the order page saying they did not want single-use plastic tableware, such as cutlery and chopsticks, to be included with their order. But the effect was not obvious. “We can encourage restaurants and customers to reduce the use of disposable plastic containers, but we are not in a position to force them to do so,” said an employee from Ele.me, who asked not to be named. 

“Currently, there are no specific laws and regulations to address the problem. E-commerce platforms cannot force online stores to use certain kinds of packaging, nor do they have the right to promote environmentally friendly plastic products through agreements,” said Guo Hu, a lawyer from Jingsh (Hangzhou) Law Firm. 

Jiang Jianguo, a professor at the School of the Environment at Tsinghua University, told NewsChina that decisionmakers are in a dilemma when dealing with these emerging types of business: Encouraging the enterprises to figure out solutions takes time, but adopting coercive measures might harm development. 

Dubious Alternatives
Meanwhile, the guideline stresses the importance of promoting substitutes such as non-plastic and biodegradable plastic products. It may provide an opportunity for companies that produce biode-gradable materials, business analysts said. In Hainan Province, which in February 2019 released a plan to ban non-biodegradable plastic products, biodegradable plastic is already starting to attract more attention as the most feasible substitute. Liu Wei, vice president of Hainan Saigao New Material Company, the only company in Hainan capable of producing biodegradable materials, said that his company is “hot” now, with a busy schedule of meeting customers and government officials. 

Biodegradable plastics have never been used at scale in China. Market demand has been low. In the last 20 years, many manufac-turers were interested in producing biodegradable plastics, but few survived. Liu said they started production in 2006, but it has been a long struggle. 

“The biggest challenge is low social acceptance. People think these products are too expensive,” Liu said. He explained that both supermarkets and farmers markets are reluctant to use biodegradable bags that cost a bit more than ordinary ones, which either leaves them little profit from selling bags or, if they raise the price, might scare away customers. 

Before Hainan, Jilin Province in North China tried to promote biodegradable products in 2015, but the five-year effort fell far short of expectations in provincial capital Changchun, CZWA found. 

Xie said that nine companies producing biodegradable plastics were established in an industrial park in Changchun, but by May 2019 three had gone bankrupt and three had halted production. The other three either depend on exports or keep losing money. These companies could not get enough orders from the domestic market to maintain normal operations. The subsidies or preferential policies the government had provided were gradually reduced or canceled. 

CZWA surveyed 18 plastic bag shops at the biggest wholesale market in Changchun and found only five sold biodegradable bags. The organization also found that 41 percent of retail stores in the city provided biodegradable plastic bags and 53 percent of those interviewed said they did not know how to distinguish the two. Only 1.4 percent said they would use biodegradable bags for perishable waste. 

The main problem is that biodegradable plastic bags will not degrade when half of the people are still using non-biodegradable, noted Xie,explaining that in compost degradation any mixture of non-biodegradable plastics would affect the process. 

Wang Jun, professor of packaging engineering at Jiangnan University in Wuxi, Jiangsu Province, told NewsChina that there are also problems with the industry, such as low production capacity, high costs and the fragility of biodegradable materials in industrial processing, which may pose challenges to supply. 

Holistic Issue
The biggest problem with plastic bags is not what they are made of,but that they are disposed of after a single use without being properly recycled, experts said. 

To address the problem, the new policy proposes building a management system regarding the production, circulation, usage and recycling of plastic products. “It’s a step forward in focusing on building an overall industrial chain surrounding plastic recycling. It proposes a management system to cover every link of the industry as well as a framework for supervision, policy and scientific research and development,” Jiang Nanqing, secretary general of the China Synthetic Resin Association’s plastic recycling branch, wrote in an article published in the People’s Daily (Overseas Edition) in February. 

But Jiang Nanqing said that the new policy is only a guideline and different places need to devise policies based on their own conditions. She suggested holding manufacturers accountable. “Producers should be responsible for the discarding and scrapping of plastics [in their products] instead of having recycling companies pay to do it,” Jiang said. 

In the European Union, the cost of running the recycling system for renewable resources is shared by government and the producers, Jiang said, which includes both brand manufacturers and chemical enterprises in the upstream of the plastic industry. 

The lack of a sound recycling system has been one critical problem with chronic plastic pollution. “There have been clear plans on recycling renewable resources that pointed out how to address plastic recycling, but there have been no feasible plans for how to implement it,” said Jiang Nanqing. 

Many experts concerned with plastic use and recycling believe that authorities should take into account the lessons of the past, which show that depending on consumer consciousness or charging for bags should be abandoned completely. The problem will never be solved without strong regulation or mobilizing the involvement of every link in the chain, from manufacturers to users and recyclers. 

“The new ban is significant. But we need to see what effect it will have in practice,” said Tang Damin from Greenpeace China, adding that environmental protection organizations and scholars are expecting that further policies to support the single-use plastic ban will have to be rolled out.