China’s Plastic Bag Ban: The Verdict is Still Out
August 31, 2010 § 3 Comments
In a move that captured the attention of the world, China’s State Council issued a national ban on plastic bags, effective June 1 2008. Stores and stalls throughout China were thenceforth not permitted to hand out free plastic bags to its customers. The purpose was two-fold: to save the 37 million barrels of crude oil every year needed to produce the bags and to reduce “white pollution,” the term for the ultra thin plastic bags and styrofoam. A year later, in June of 2009, the ban was declared a success, as environmental think tanks like Worldwatch reported that in the first year of the ban alone 1.6 million tons of crude were saved and plastic bag use had dropped by two-thirds.
But, in June of 2010, almost a year to the day after Worldwatch and other environmental authorities pronounced the campaign a success, this picture, eye-catchingly eery, of a forest covered in plastic bags, appeared on the front page of the China Daily News (June 29, 2010), with the headlines, “Plastic Bag Ban Yet to be Enforced.” What does this stunning photo indicate? First, and most clearly, that the ban hasn’t been as effective as the rash of optimistic reports in 2009 might have suggested. Second, and this is crucial as it speaks to a general point: issuing law or policy in China is one thing, implementing and enforcing it are another. (It is commonly supposed, especially in the West, that laws and policy, once issued by the Chinese central government, have an unshakable, commanding force.) Third, Chinese authorities, in permitting the prominent publication of the photo, are acknowledging that the ban has fallen short of its goals and asking for the cooperation of the Chinese people and local authorities in making the ban a success.