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Thursday, January 10, 2008 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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China battles pollution from plastic bags

The Associated Press

BEIJING — Declaring war on the "white pollution" choking its cities, farms and waterways, China is banning free plastic shopping bags and calling for a return to the cloth bags of old — steps largely welcomed by merchants and shoppers Wednesday.

The measure eliminates the flimsiest bags and forces stores to charge for others, making China the latest nation to target plastic bags in a bid to cut waste and conserve resources.

Beijing residents appeared to take the ban in stride, reflecting rising environmental consciousness and concern over skyrocketing oil prices.

"If we can reduce waste and save resources, then it's good both for us and the whole world," said college student Xu Lixian, who was buying tangerines out of cardboard boxes at a sidewalk stall.

The ban takes effect June 1, barely two months before Beijing hosts the Summer Olympic Games, ahead of which it has been demolishing run-down neighborhoods and working to clear smog. The games have added impetus to a number of policies and projects, likely boosting odds for the bag ban's implementation.

"China is ahead of the U.S. with this policy," said Christopher Flavin, president of Worldwatch Institute, an independent research organization in Washington.

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

The regulation, dated Dec. 31 and posted Tuesday on a government Web site, called for "a return to cloth bags and shopping baskets to reduce the use of plastic bags."

It also urged waste collectors to step up recycling efforts to reduce the amount of bags burned or buried. Finance authorities were told to consider tax measures to discourage plastic-bag production and sales.

Internationally, legislation to discourage plastic-bag use has been passed in parts of South Africa, Ireland and Taiwan, where authorities either tax shoppers who use them or impose fees on companies that distribute them. Bangladesh already bans them, as do at least 30 remote Alaskan villages.

Last year, San Francisco became the first U.S. city to ban petroleum-based plastic bags in large grocery stores. In France, supermarket chains have begun shying away from giving away plastic bags; German stores must pay a recycling fee if they wish to offer them. Ireland's surcharge on bags, imposed in 2003, has been credited with sharply reducing demand.

The elderly proprietor of a combined clothing shop and grocery shop, who gave only his surname, Wang, said the Chinese measure could reduce sales initially but would be beneficial in the long run.

"It's a bother, but these bags really do create a lot of pollution, so it should be a good thing," Wang said. He said the measure would make little difference to his costs because he spends just 10 yuan ($1.35) a month on bags.

The regulation comes as Beijing steps up efforts to fight the pollution that has accompanied China's breakneck economic growth. Factories and plants that churn out low-cost products for the world's consumers have severely fouled the country's air and water.

The order continues a years-old campaign against plastic waste, or "white pollution," that initially targeted the plastic foam lunch boxes whose decaying shells were once ubiquitous in China.

Shopkeepers started handing out cheap, flimsy plastic bags to customers about 15 years ago. In recent years, large Western or Japanese-style supermarkets have begun to supplant traditional markets, eliminating the need for shoppers to bring their own bags.

Jennifer Turner, director of the China Environment Forum at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, said China's solid waste is at "a crisis level."

"Their landfills are reaching capacity and will be full in 13 years," she said, adding that this ban could be a significant way to educate the public about China's environmental issues.

In the United States, which has less than one-quarter of China's 1.3 billion people, the Sierra Club's Sierra magazine estimates that almost 100 billion plastic bags are thrown out each year. The Sierra Club estimated that if every one of New York City's 8 million people used one less grocery bag per year, it would reduce waste by about 218,000 pounds.

In New York on Wednesday, the City Council approved a bill requiring large stores to provide bins for recycling plastic bags.

The stores must also use bags that read: "Please return this bag to a participating store for recycling." Mayor Michael Bloomberg supports the measure and is expected to sign it.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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