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China To Join Ban On Ultra-Thin Plastic Bags

Reuters in Beijing – Updated on May 28, 2008

The mainland is to try to kick a 3 billion-a-day plastic bag habit. But breaking the addiction, in a bid to save energy and protect the environment, will be easier said than done.

On Sunday, it will join a growing list of countries, from Ireland to Bangladesh, that are aiming to change shoppers’ habits when a ban on the production of plastic bags under 0.025mm thick comes into force.

Ultra-thin bags are the principal target of the crackdown because they are typically used once and then discarded, adding to waste in a country that is increasingly conscious of the air and water pollution caused by its breakneck economic growth.

Shopkeepers will also be barred from handing out free plastic carrier bags except for fresh and cooked foods. Those breaking the law face fines and could have their goods confiscated.

The mainland consumes 37 million barrels of what is very expensive crude oil each year to churn out the 3 billion plastic bags that its 1.3 billion people use on average each day, according to official figures.

Ma Zhanfeng, the secretary general of the China Plastics Processing Industry Association who has nearly 20 years in the industry, expects the ban to bite. “Domestic demand for plastic bags will drop drastically from 1.6 million tonnes a year to around 1.1 million tonnes.”

Bag makers have felt the pinch from the looming restrictions. Some have been forced out of business.

But Ning Rongju of Friends of Nature, a non-governmental organisation, says all will depend on whether the new rules are enforced, especially in cities such as Beijing, where demand for bags is huge.

“The execution and monitoring of the law will actually determine the future of plastic bags,” she said.

Xiao Ling, the mother of a six-year-old boy, said her family was already using nylon shopping bags. But she, too, was sceptical. “Getting rid of all ultra-thin bags will take a long time,” she said while shopping at a Wal-Mart supermarket in Beijing.

For plastic processors, the curbs are the latest blow to a sector struggling with soaring raw material and labour costs, a rising exchange rate and an end to export tax rebates.

The plastic bag industry is highly segmented, with factories in almost every province. One major centre is Taizhou, a city in Zhejiang province, where more than 10,000 manufacturers of plastic products enjoy sales of 40 billion yuan (HK$44.92 billion) each year, according to the Taizhou Plastics Industry Association.

Chen Jiazeng, the group’s director, said “small factories might ignore the rule and keep making ultra-thin bags” as long as they could make money.

The prospect that some underground manufacturers will turn a blind eye to the law is especially unsettling for smaller firms.

The Taizhou Xinxing Plastic Packaging Company, which employs 300 people and has annual sales of about 15 million yuan, mostly from plastic bags, is considering switching to other plastic goods.

“The new policy will make plastic bags even more expensive,” Su Xiaobing, the company’s sales manager, said. “We won’t have any price advantage then.”

Fear of illegal competition is shared by big manufacturers such as Huiqiang in Henan province, whose plastic bags all conform to the new national standards.

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