Plas­tic Waste: A Tall Hill to Climb

As many new va­ri­eties of plas­tic waste emerge, the govern­ment needs to is­sue new re­stric­tive reg­u­la­tions on plas­tic prod­ucts.

China Pictorial (English) - - Contents - Text by Xie Xinyuan

This year marks the tenth an­niver­sary of China’s im­ple­men­ta­tion of the reg­u­la­tion re­strict­ing plas­tic bags. Ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional De­vel­op­ment and Re­form Com­mis­sion, the reg­u­la­tion caused the usage of plas­tic shop­ping bags to drop by two-thirds in su­per­mar­kets and shop­ping malls from 2008 to 2013—a re­duc­tion of 67 bil­lion plas­tic bags or 1 mil­lion tons of plas­tic.

Plas­tic bag re­stric­tions aim to fight “white pol­lu­tion.” But as time passes, the en­force­ment and ef­fec­tive­ness of the reg­u­la­tion have faced chal­lenges. And with the rapid growth of new “In­ter­net Plus” busi­nesses, un­re­stricted plas­tic waste has emerged in great quan­tity.

Cheap Plas­tic Bags

On May 31, 2018, China Zero Waste Al­liance un­der Friends of Na­ture is­sued a re­port on the re­tail­ers’ prac­tice of re­strict­ing plas­tic bags. Of 1,101 sur­veyed re­tail­ers, 979 pro­vided plas­tic bags, but only 89 sold plas­tic bags with clear marks and qual­i­fied thick­ness. Aside from large su­per­mar­kets and na­tional chain re­tail­ers, 90 per­cent of re­tail­ers did not charge fees for plas­tic bags.

In re­gard of the cur­rent re­stric­tive reg­u­la­tion on plas­tic bags, China Zero Waste Al­liance thinks there are prob­lems in both pric­ing and meth­ods of re­stric­tion. Presently, a plas­tic bag costs 0.2 to 0.5 yuan, which hardly be­comes a bur­den on con­sumers. Many re­tail­ers are even will­ing to pro­vide such bags for free to avoid los­ing cus­tomers. Al­though some sell­ers charge fees for plas­tic bags, they col­lect the fees them­selves rather than lever­ag­ing the tax to de­ter the pol­lu­tion. Con­se­quently, the “re­strict­ing plas­tic bags” reg­u­la­tion was ac­cused of merely “sell­ing plas­tic bags.” Un­less the en­vi­ron­men­tal costs of the usage of plas­tic bags are in­cluded in their pro­duc­tion costs, the af­ford­able price will mo­ti­vate no one to in­vent re­us­able al­ter­na­tives, and re­tail­ers and con­sumers will con­tinue us­ing them.

The sur­vey also showed that al­though 80 per­cent of large su­per­rmar­kets and na­tional chain re­tail­ers rs were charg­ing fees for plas­tic shopp­ping bags, they still pro­vided free dis­pos­able plas­tic prod­ucts like flat at poly bags and wraps. The reg­u­la­tion on only lim­its plas­tic bags with han­dles es yet ne­glects these dis­pos­able bags which are also hardly re­cy­cled. This is re­sulted in re­stock­ing plas­tic bags with sub­sti­tutes that skirted the rules. So o the to­tal sum of plas­tic waste may not have dropped but in­creased.

An­other Ngo—bei­jing Union on of Grass­land—also con­ducted a sur­vey of a cer­tain area where plas­tic stic shop­ping bags were al­most com­ple­teetely elim­i­nated. But the al­ter­na­tives are free non-wo­ven fab­ric bags of low w qual­ity, which are of­ten dis­carded by con­sumers after a sin­gle use. “Their eir strict en­force­ment of the reg­u­la­tion on de­serves ap­plause,” says the head of the Union. “But the plas­tic bags have ave been re­placed by non-wo­ven fab­ric c

sub­sti­tutes. Ac­tu­ally, they are made from polypropy­lene, so fun­da­men­tally the fab­ric bag is also plas­tic. The prob­lem is not solved.”

Pre­car­i­ous Degrad­able Plas­tics

In re­cent years, Jilin, Hainan and He­nan prov­inces and some re­gions is­sued reg­u­la­tions to re­strict plas­tic bags and pro­mote degrad­able plas­tics to re­place plas­tic shop­ping bags and even dis­pos­able table­ware. Last Novem­ber, the State Post Bu­reau and nine other min­istries jointly an­nounced guide­lines to pro­mote green pack­ag­ing in the de­liv­ery in­dus­try, ac­cord­ing to which degrad­able green ma­te­ri­als will ac­count for 50 per­cent of all pack­ag­ing by 2020.

“We need to be care­ful be­cause not all degrad­able plas­tics are good for the en­vi­ron­ment,” stresses Dr. Mao Da from Bei­jing Nor­mal Univer­sity. “If the au­thor­i­ties do not de­fine and stan­dard­ize ‘degrad­able pack­age,’ there will be both good and bad prod­ucts in the mar­ket.” Ac­tu­ally, “degrad­able pack­age” is not the same as “green pack­age.”

First, degrad­able plas­tic is vir­tu­ally a dis­pos­able prod­uct. The cul­ture of one-off con­sump­tion is the root of the waste prob­lem. Dis­pos­able prod­ucts fuel mass pro­duc­tion and mas­sive waste. Dis­pos­able degrad­able plas­tic prod­ucts are no ex­cep­tion. Some typ­i­cal degrad­able plas­tics are made from starch. If they are widely used, they could squeeze the land for grain pro­duc­tion. And ex­ces­sive dis­card­ing of degrad­able plas­tics has also caused se­ri­ous prob­lems.

Sec­ond, ma­te­ri­als for degrad­able plas­tics vary con­sid­er­ably. And degra­da­tion re­quires strict con­di­tions. China presently lacks uni­fied stan­dards for degrad­able ma­te­ri­als. Many degrad­able pack­ages in the mar­ket can only be par­tially de­graded. And the frag­mented leftover can even cause more se­ri­ous prob­lems. Even ma­te­ri­als which can

be de­graded com­pletely can only do so un­der cer­tain con­di­tions with spe­cific tech­nol­ogy and fa­cil­i­ties. For ex­am­ple, the degrad­abil­ity de­fined by Euro­pean stan­dard EN 13432 re­quires par­tic­u­lar com­post­ing fa­cil­i­ties. Al­most no plas­tic prod­uct can dis­solve in the ocean or or­di­nary soil. Most cities in China have no com­post­ing fa­cil­i­ties at all.

Third, for the fore­see­able fu­ture, China’s waste sort­ing sys­tem will not meet the re­quire­ments to re­cy­cle and de­grade “biodegrad­able plas­tics.” On the con­trary, the pro­mo­tion of degrad­able plas­tics could dam­age China’s progress in garbage clas­si­fi­ca­tion. The coun­try has pro­moted waste sort­ing for many years. But only re­cently has kitchen garbage be­come the class re­quir­ing the most sort­ing work. It seems the best choice to com­post “degrad­able plas­tics” and or­ganic food waste. But ac­tu­ally, some so-called “degrad­able plas­tic” prod­ucts are just par­tially degrad­able and some are even or­di­nary plas­tics. And be­cause most Chi­nese cit­i­zens have not devel­oped the habit of sep­a­rat­ing trash by dry or wet, most of them will throw both or­di­nary plas­tics and degrad­able plas­tics into kitchen rub­bish. And the bur­geon­ing seg­re­ga­tion of wet and dry waste in China will be de­stroyed.

Ad­di­tion­ally, some “degrad­able plas­tics” can­not even en­ter a com­post­ing fa­cil­ity. For ex­am­ple, at Bei­jing’s Nan­gong Com­post­ing Plant, be­fore mixed kitchen rub­bish en­ters the com­post­ing work­shop, a roller will screen out pos­si­ble non-kitchen rub­bish and it be­lieves by de­fault that all plas­tic bags are not com­postable. So, degrad­able plas­tic bags will end up with or­di­nary plas­tic ones.

So, con­sid­er­ing the pro­duc­tion n tech­nol­ogy and stan­dards for degrad­able plas­tics and the re­al­i­ties of waste clas­si­fi­ca­tion in China, it t should be pru­dent to make all plas­tic as­tic bags degrad­able.

Sug­ges­tions on Plas­tic Re­stric­tion

Re­lated govern­ment de­part­ments have raised plas­tic re­stric­tion on reg­u­la­tion high on the agenda. In Jan­uary, the Na­tional De­vel­op­ment nt and Re­form Com­mis­sion used “re­strict­ing some plas­tics bags, re­plac­ing some and reg­u­lat­ing some” me” as a guide­line to so­licit ad­vice on con­trol­ling plas­tic waste.

First, charg­ing pro­duc­ers rather er than con­sumers for any and all plas­tic as­tic bags should com­mence as soon as s

pos­si­ble. Plas­tic wrap and bags will still be­come waste, so the au­thor­i­ties should in­ves­ti­gate the en­vi­ron­men­tal cost of these kinds of prod­ucts and then list them as du­tiable pol­lu­tants in the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Tax Law or re­quire their pro­duc­ers to pay a garbage dis­posal fee which could be­come a spe­cial fund for man­ag­ing plas­tic pol­lu­tion. The fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ple should be “in­clud­ing the en­vi­ron­men­tal cost into pro­duc­tion cost.” Tax rev­enue can be used to sub­si­dize re­search on al­ter­na­tives, thus cre­at­ing a vir­tu­ous cir­cle.

Sec­ond, the re­stric­tion should ex­pand to all plas­tic wrap and bags and in­tro­duce “neg­a­tive list” man­age­ment. The au­thor­i­ties should re­search mixed rub­bish in the re­cy­cling sys­tem, land­fills and incin­er­a­tors as well as dis­posal meth­ods out­side the for­mal sys­tem to iden­tify which kinds of plas­tics ac­count for the ma­jor­ity. And then ac­cord­ing to al­ter­na­tive plans, the au­thor­i­ties should for­mu­late a list of for­bid­den and re­stricted plas­tic prod­ucts and grad­u­ally ex­pand the list based on ma­tu­rity of al­ter­na­tive op­tions.

Third, the au­thor­i­ties should set lim­its for the to­tal quan­tity of plas­tic wrap and bags en­ter­ing the mar­ket and adopt a mar­ket ac­cess sys­tem. By do­ing so, the govern­ment can reg­u­late pro­duc­tion of plas­tic wrap and bags through ad­min­is­tra­tive ap­provals. Only dis­posal plas­tic wrap and bags that are re­cy­clable can ap­pear on the white list and en­ter the mar­ket, pre­vent­ing the pop­u­lar­ity of al­ter­na­tives such as low-qual­ity non-wo­ven bags.

Fourth, the au­thor­i­ties should en­cour­age in­no­va­tion while be­ing cau­tious about al­ter­na­tive ma­te­ri­als like “degrad­able plas­tics.” Non-dis­posal pack­ag­ing and in­no­va­tive car­ry­ing meth­ods—like lend­ing a cloth bag with a cash de­posit, durable and re­cy­clable de­liv­ery boxes and shops with­out pack­ag­ing—should en­joy pref­er­en­tial poli­cies. The govern­ment should sub­si­dize re­us­able al­ter­na­tives that truly re­duce dis­pos­able plas­tic wrap and bags and of­fer fa­vor­able poli­cies to com­pa­nies that in­vent durable pack­age for use in of­fices or ware­houses.

The au­thor is di­rec­tor of the pol­icy de­part­ment of China Zero Waste Al­liance un­der Friends of Na­ture.

April 9, 2018: Two black swans in a park in Shenyang, cap­i­tal of China’s north­east­ern Liaon­ing Prov­ince, play with a plas­tic bag. Ex­perts es­ti­mate that more than 8,500 birds and an­i­mals die from eat­ing plas­tic bags each year world­wide. IC

An ex­hi­bi­tion pre­sented by the Cen­tral Acad­emy of Fine Arts, “What’s Green?” is held in Bei­jing’s ng’s 798 Art Dis­trict, aim­ing to de­ter r shop­pers from ask­ing for sin­gle-use -use plas­tic shop­ping bags. VCG

June 5, 2018: Hema su­per­mar­ket at Shang­hai’s Huiyang Plaza launches a “plas­tic bag-free” cam­paign to urge con­sumers to use fewer plas­tic bags. VCG

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