Plas­tic bags are handy, but threaten our en­vi­ron­ment

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - BUSINESS - By GAO JIN’AN

Once a month or so, my wife and I call a collector to take away the re­cy­clable trash pil­ing up on our kitchen bal­cony — news­pa­pers, pack­ag­ing card­board, bot­tles and so forth. Of­ten, he pays us one or two bucks.

But there are al­ways items he doesn’t want — plas­tic bags.

We have been try­ing to use as few plas­tic bags as pos­si­ble, but still they pile up. I don’t know how oth­ers dis­pose of them. We keep the clean, in­tact ones to use on fu­ture shop­ping trips. The dirty ones go to their fi­nal use, as trash bags. How­ever, most bags are stained or small ones that we have to take out with other trash.

Plas­tic bags, since their in­ven­tion about a cen­tury ago, have brought tremen­dous con­ve­nience and be­come an in­sep­a­ra­ble part of the fab­ric of our daily lives. It’s not easy to name any as­pect of our daily lives where plas­tic bags are ab­sent.

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But, this con­ve­nience comes with a price — en­vi­ron­men­tal pol­lu­tion or “white pol­lu­tion”, as it is bet­ter known here in China. Stud­ies have shown that it will take some two cen­turies for plas­tic bags to de­grade. The Guardian and Time listed plas­tic bag as one of the worst in­ven­tions, be­cause of the grave en­vi­ron­men­tal haz­ards.

Nonethe­less, this should not negate the role of plas­tic bags.

The ques­tion is how we can “in­vent” ef­fec­tive and rev­o­lu­tion­ary ways and tech­nolo­gies to mit­i­gate or elim­i­nate the un­wanted side ef­fects, thus mak­ing plas­tic re­cy­cling both green and prof­itable.

The gov­ern­ment banned the pro­duc­tion, sales and use of ul­tra­thin plas­tic bags in 2008 and a sys­tem in which cus­tomers must pay for plas­tic bags was also in­tro­duced in the year across the coun­try. Still, Chi­nese con­sumers use as many as 3 bil­lion plas­tic bags ev­ery­day, ac­cord­ing to the China Plas­tics Pro­cess­ing In­dus­try As­so­ci­a­tion.

Most of these bags even­tu­ally end up in land­fills, but oth­ers are ran­domly dis­carded, caus­ing se­ri­ous en­vi­ron­men­tal prob­lems. A few are in­cin­er­ated for power gen­er­a­tion or pro­cessed for re­use, caus­ing air pol­lu­tion.

To curb white pol­lu­tion, it will prob­a­bly work bet­ter if mea­sures are taken on both ends of the chain — re­duc­ing the use of such bags and seek­ing new and ad­vanced tech­nolo­gies for green dis­posal.

On the one hand, higher costs may force some con­sumers to give up ex­ces­sive use of plas­tic bags and to bring their own shop­ping bags. If a habit of bring­ing their own bags is es­tab­lished among con­sumers, the amount of plas­tic usage would fall ac­cord­ingly.

On the other hand, stores will have to pre­pare durable and en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly al­ter­na­tives for cus­tomers.

In the war against white pol­lu­tion, the gov­ern­ment should en­cour­age re­search and de­vel­op­ment of en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly meth­ods and tech­nol­ogy for plas­tic dis­posal and of­fer in­cen­tives for com­pa­nies and or­ga­ni­za­tions en­gaged in the sec­tor. This will help drive for­ward the coun­try’s ini­tia­tive to de­velop a cir­cu­lar econ­omy, in which plas­tic re­cy­cling and harm­less dis­posal have a role to play. Plus, the gov­ern­ment needs to of­fer both fi­nan­cial and pol­icy sup­port to green dis­posal.

Another op­tion is that all plas­tic bags could be made degrad­able to mit­i­gate the en­vi­ron­men­tal haz­ards. While writ­ing this ar­ti­cle, I did a search on a pop­u­lar and widely used e-com­merce plat­form in China. The re­sult was pretty dis­cour­ag­ing. A search for “plas­tic bag” led to more than a hun­dred pages of re­sults. But when I nar­rowed it down to “degrad­able plas­tic bags”, there were only two pages.

Only when degrad­able plas­tic bags are widely used and when plas­tic dis­posal be­comes prof­itable, will we then be able to ex­pect an en­vi­ron­ment with less white pol­lu­tion. And, the col­lec­tors of re­cy­clables will then be will­ing to pay the bags, which will be a valu­able re­source.

Con­tact the writer at gao­jin@ chi­nadaily.com.cn

WANG JIANKANG / FOR CHINA DAILY

Cus­tomers put toma­toes into a plas­tic bag at a su­per­mar­ket in Suzhou, Jiangsu province.

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