China Wins Olympic-Size Victory Over Plastic Bag Pollution

Bag use - and its litter - drop two-thirds in three years

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As the U.S. intensifies its efforts to permanently cap the Gulf oil spill, there has been heated debate about the role of fossil fuels in our energy future.

President Obama used the spill to highlight the need to diversify our energy sources and invest more heavily in clean renewable energy, while Republicans have warned that any attempts to curb activities such as off-shore oil drilling will have dire economic consequences on an already battered economy.

Little attention has been given to a much less sexy though equally practical idea: reducing our energy consumption through changes in consumer behavior.The most recent example of this comes from across the Pacific, where a one-year old ban on thin plastic bags in China has had some pretty astounding results.

If you’ve been to China or any developing country, you are familiar with the flimsy little pieces of plastic scattered throughout streets, alongside roads, and in waterways. These bags, or "white pollution" as Chinese officials have dubbed them, are not only an eyesore, they clog waterways, harm wildlife, and most importantly, consume large amounts of petroleum during their production process.

Two months before the opening of the 2008 Olympic Games in Bejing, China began implementing a surprisingly ambitious ban that prohibits supermarkets and large retail stores from handing out free plastic bags across the country. Reactions, unsurprisingly, were mixed with merchants complaining that such an aggressive ban would be bad news for business.

A year later, a government study found that the plastic bag ban has had profound effects on consumer behavior: plastic bag consumption in China dropped a whopping 66 percent. In a country as large as China, that meant saving more than 40 billion plastic bags – the equivalent of 1.6 million tons of petroleum.

There has even been a flourishing of boutique designer eco-bags for the most savvy Chinese shoppers. Despite the upbeat assessment, the study did find that rural areas and small mom-and-pop shops often ignored the rules because of poor policing.

To most American consumers who are used to having their groceries bagged and then double bagged, the idea of a plastic bag ban may seem draconian, but China is only the latest in a series of countries that have already banned or placed a fee on plastic bag consumption. Australia, Ireland, Italy, and South Africa have already adopted such rules, and San Francisco became the first US city to ban plastic bags from large supermarkets in 2007.

Other American cities have had more mixed results: DC just passed a plastic bag tax, Baltimore decided against a fee, and Philadelphia killed its week-old ban after intense lobbying from the petroleum and retail industry.

China’s experience with the plastic bag ban offers a dramatic example of how simple changes in consumer behavior can profoundly affect energy consumption and help us avoid tragedies like the BP oil spill in the Gulf. Saving a few plastic bags each time you visit a store may not sound like much, but when 1.3 billion people do it, the results are staggering.


Ray is the VP of Communications and Marketing at Earthjustice. He is based in San Francisco.