China gears up to ban free plastic bags

China is gearing up to become the latest country to ban free plastic bags in a government-led campaign to change people’s shopping habits, cut down waste and help the environment.

The nationwide measure that comes into effect on Sunday eliminates the flimsiest bags and forces stores to charge for others.

Beijing has promised to hold a green Olympic Games this summer, giving extra impetus to a number of environmental policies and projects. Led by the central government and involving powerful ministries, officials have vowed to cut down on the “white pollution” of discarded bags that choke China’s cities, farms and waterways.

The government is hoping to change people’s habits, said Dong Jinshi, a vice chairman at the China Plastics Processing Industry Association.

“The public knows it is good for the environment, but it remains in their heads. What the policy does is to get them into action,” Dong said.

The association estimates that the amount of plastic bags used will be reduced by one-third from 1.6 million tons a year. Chinese now use three billion bags every day, according to the group, and they are virtually indestructible, taking years to break down and commonly ending up in China’s already clogged landfills.

A ban in Ireland cut the number of bags used by 90%, according to Waste Watch, a UK-based environmental non profit group. Several African nations have set thickness requirements that have effectively banned the flimsy thin bags that float in the air.

Under the rules, businesses nationwide will be prohibited from manufacturing, selling or using bags less than 0.025 millimetres (0.00098 inches) thick, according to the order issued by the State Council, China’s Cabinet. More durable plastic bags will still be permitted for sale by markets and shops.

Commerce Ministry official Men Xiaowei said 3% to 5% of the weight of landfills was made up of plastic waste from households, the majority of which was plastic bags.

With oil prices up more than 42% since December, the rule is also an attempt to cut energy use. It takes 37 million barrels of crude oil a year to make all the bags needed for China.

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