Green policy in China, through a plastic bag

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As green issues go plastic bags are fairly mundane, but the differing ways they are being handled in China says a lot about how environmental policy gets made. Plastic bags fill up landfills and require significant amounts of petroleum to produce. They are also convenient and have become an integral part of the Chinese shopping experience, so reducing their use difficult.

This week Beijing announced a ban on one category of plastic bags–the thin kind used to wrap grocery purchases and takeout–and a tax on thicker plastic bags. Hong Kong, a part of China with a semi-autonomous government, is slowly working its way to a similar tax, which should be put in place in 2009.

The two approaches couldn’t be more different. On the mainland, activists like Wen Hengfeng, who works on a year-old plastic bag reduction program for Global Village of Beijing, an environmental NGO, discovered this week that their work had been done for them. Wen says she was both happy and surprised with the decision, which came without warning. “Nobody told us anything about this,” she says. “Our government is really unequivocal.” The State Council announcement declared that, “While convenient for consumers, the bags also lead to a severe waste of resources and environmental pollution because of their excessive use and low rate of recycling. The ultra-thin bags are the main source of ‘white’ pollution as they can easily get broken and end up as litter.”

Hong Kong has been wrestling with this issue for years. There have been environmental campaigns, a counter campaign by the plastic bag makers (yes, Hong Kong has a plastic bag lobby), dozens of news stories and letters to the editor, reduction plans that have been adopted then dropped by large supermarkets. In short, it’s been a jumbled mess. But maybe that is what’s required to make that sort of decision in a place where all interested parties will needle legislators, protest on the streets and complain in the press.

On the mainland you wake up one day to find the decision has been made. Folks can criticize the ban–and the South China Morning Post notes a web survey that has opposition to the plan running at more than 50%–but the decision is unlikely to be changed. While that makes the process much cleaner, it raises questions about how effective the policy will be. My friend and former colleague Alex Pasternack notes in his summary of the decision this week that the big question, as with all laws in China, is how it will be enforced. When I asked environmental campaigner Wen whether the State Council decision meant that her bag campaign was finished, she replied no, that it will take a long time to get people to adapt to the decision. So what are the odds that a year from now that in remote corners of the country you can still get a free plastic bag?

Bonus question: Does this mean that in the future everyone in China who orders takeout noodles will walk around with a big thermos like Maggie Cheung in Wong Kar-wai’s “In the Mood for Love?” She makes it look cool: