In the Jinkelong supermarket in central Beijing, the check-out woman is putting one plastic bag inside the other in case the bags should split. The total tally she produces for a small amount of groceries is four plastic bags and one smaller bag for fruit – five of the three billion plastic bags used in China every day.
Around the corner, a foreigner-friendly chain called Jenny Lou's has introduced a charge on plastic bags, to the delight of western Europeans and to the bafflement and occasional irritation of the many Russian and Chinese customers.
But now everyone is going to have to get used to the idea that the ubiquitous plastic bag's days are numbered. From 1 June, China will ban the production of ultra-thin plastic bags and shops will be forbidden from handing out free plastic bags, the State Council said this week.
Once, standing on an ancient bridge crossing a crystal-clear stream in a valley where there were no roads and no electricity, a white plastic shopping bag came floating down to where I stood. It was one of the most disturbing scenes I've witnessed in more than four years in China. Environ-mental horror notwithstanding, the ban is being introduced for soundly pragmatic reasons.
The environment is a factor, but the huge amount of petrol needed to make plastic bags is a more pertinent reason for the ban. With crude oil prices at or around $100 a barrel, the cheap plastic bag is rapidly becoming an expensive commodity.
"Our country consumes huge amounts of plastic bags every year. While providing convenience to consumers, they have also caused serious pollution, and waste of energy and resources, because of excessive use and inadequate recycling," the State Council – China's Cabinet – said on its website.
"The ultra-thin bags are the main source of 'white' pollution as they can easily get broken and end up as litter ... we should encourage people to return to carrying cloth bags, using baskets for their vegetables."
Plastic bags are one of the great bugbears of the environmental lobby – they take hundreds of years to decompose. Many countries, including those with developing economies, have bitten the bullet and banned plastic bags, and introduced taxes to encourage the use of biodegradable materials in bag production.
Trying to get people not to give you a plastic bag in China is a real problem. Shop assistants are wary about putting DVDs straight into a backpack, and in supermarkets the packers insist on putting goods into plastic bags before placing them into a cloth shopping bag.
While many people will be happy with new efforts to improve China's poor environment, the plastic bag is a much-valued commodity in China, where mass consumption is still a relatively new phenomenon.
Shopkeepers are worried that getting rid of plastic bags will make shoppers unwilling to buy things – a pilot ban in Shenzhen last year was not a success.Reuse content