Jan 21, 2020
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China Says It Will Ban Plastics That Pollute Its Land and Water

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BEIJING — It’s piled up in landfills. It clutters fields and rivers, dangles from trees, and forms flotillas of waste in the seas. China’s use of plastic bags, containers and cutlery has become one of its most stubborn and ugliest environmental blights.

So the Chinese government has introduced measures to drastically cut the amount of disposable plastic items that often become a hazard and an eyesore in the country, even deep in the countryside and in the oceans.

Among the new guidelines are bans on the import of plastic waste and the use of nonbiodegradable plastic bags in major cities by the end of this year. Other sources of plastic garbage will be banned in Beijing, Shanghai and wealthy coastal provinces by the end of 2022, and that rule will extend nationwide by late 2025.

Previous efforts to reduce the use of plastic bags have faltered in China, but the government has indicated that, this time, it will be more serious and systematic in tackling the problem.

“Consumption of plastic products, especially single-use items, has been consistently rising,” said an explanation accompanying the new guidelines, which were released on Sunday by the environment ministry and China’s chief industrial planning agency. “There needs to be stronger comprehensive planning and a systematic rollout to clean up plastic pollution.”

The plan is likely to be welcomed by many Chinese, who have become increasingly worried about polluted air, water, soil and natural surroundings. But it could be a hard sell for a society used to the convenience of online retailers and couriers who deliver hot meals and packages swaddled in plastic.

Although people in China generally generate less plastic waste per capita than Americans, almost three-quarters of China’s plastic waste ends up in poorly managed landfills or out in the open.

Environmental campaigners in China welcomed the effort to reduce plastic use, though some said it was not strict or detailed enough. Others raised doubts about the government’s ability to develop and promote substitutes for nonbiodegradable plastics that linger in soil, waterways and oceans for decades, even centuries.

Given the severity of China’s pollution problems, greater urgency is needed, said Chen Liwen, a founder of China Zero Waste Villages, which promotes recycling in rural areas.

“It’s certainly better than nothing,” she said, adding, “For disposable products — disposable plastic bags or many disposable food utensils — they should be outright banned.”

Tang Damin, a campaigner in Beijing for Greenpeace East Asia, said in emailed comments that while “Beijing is addressing the problem seriously and pushing reusable containers as the right solution,” the policy would be far more effective with incentives like deposit return programs.

The Chinese government appears to think that companies and consumers need time to get used to life with much less single-use plastic.

Even wealthy economies have moved gingerly to ban plastic bags. Last year, New York State approved a ban on most single-use plastic bags that is to take effect on March 1, making it only the second state after California to impose such a prohibition.

China’s plan for ending reliance on throwaway plastic sets out three phases until 2025. The restrictions start in bigger cities like Beijing and Shanghai, then move to smaller cities and towns, and lastly to villages.

By the end of the year, the guidelines say, China will ban disposable foam plastic cutlery. Shops, restaurants and markets in major cities will have to stop using nonbiodegradable plastic bags by that deadline, and restaurants and food vendors nationwide will have to stop using straws made from nonbiodegradable plastic.

China’s package delivery sector will have more time to adjust. By the end of 2022, couriers in Beijing, Shanghai and wealthy coastal provinces will have to stop using nonbiodegradable plastic packaging, tape and single-use sacks woven from plastic. By late 2025, that ban will extend nationwide.

The policy’s effects may not be immediately visible, said William Liu, a senior consultant in Shanghai for Wood Mackenzie, which advises businesses about chemicals, energy and related sectors.

“But going forward,” he said in an email, “as the ban rolls out to more cities and substitute materials gain traction, China’s polyethylene consumption will be impacted.”

One sizable obstacle — given the size of China’s consumer market, the ubiquity of plastic and the amount that ends up being dumped — is the foam plastic food containers that most restaurants use for takeout orders and that are rarely reused.

Orders sold online through Alibaba, JD.com, Meituan and other Chinese e-commerce outlets often arrive wrapped in multiple layers of plastic, apparently reflecting vendors’ fears that customers will reject dented or soiled deliveries. Chinese courier services used nearly 25 billion plastic bags for deliveries in 2018, according to an industry estimate cited by Workers’ Daily and other Chinese news outlets.

“The levels of environmental protection and recycling will really upgrade only if the entire supply chain follows through,” said Zheng Yixing, the founder of the Helihuo Environmental Technology Company in Beijing, which promotes commercial recycling.

The government said it would consider blacklisting companies that flout the plastic bans. The cooperation of the big online retail companies will be crucial, said Mr. Tang, the plastics campaigner.

“Food delivery and e-commerce ballooned China’s dependence on single-use plastics and a general throwaway culture,” he said. “It is time for Alibaba, JD.com and Meituan to stop shying away from their role in the plastics crisis.”

Wen Jing, a 28-year-old office worker in Beijing’s finance industry, said she welcomed the proposed restrictions, even if they brought inconvenience.

“There are too many plastic products in life, and it’s polluting the environment,” she said in an interview. “But I think all the right things need to be in place so there are substitutes.”

She had just left a supermarket with groceries in a plastic bag. “I bring my own bag,” she said, “though sometimes I still don’t.”

Albee Zhang contributed research.

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