NE China plastic bag ban drives green industry

When Wang Bin heard about Jilin Province’s plan to ban non-biodegradable plastic bags, it inspired a career switch.

The Heilongjiang businessman left the construction industry and started a company that produces eco-friendly plastic bags in Jilin last August.

“I was not confident about my business prospects in the beginning and was quite worried about whether the ban would be effectively enforced,” he said. “But those turned out to be unnecessary worries, as demand for my products is on the rise.”

Jilin approved the country’s first ban on the production and sale of single-use, non-biodegradable plastic shopping bags. The ban went into effect on Jan. 1, 2015.

The regulation was widely considered an upgraded version of a national ban that has been in place since June 2008. China bans supermarkets and retailers from offering free plastic bags, and production and use of plastic bags thinner than 0.025 mm are also prohibited.

Song Gang, vice director of the Jilin Province Development and Reform Commission, said plastic bag use in the province decreased by almost half during the first six months of the national ban, but it later rose to previous levels.

“The ban had a limited deterrent effect on consumers, but it helped increase retailers’ profits. Some supermarkets can earn more than 10 million yuan (1.6 million U.S. dollars) per year by selling plastic bags,” he said. “Therefore, we decided to curb ‘white pollution’ at the source by turning to biodegradable plastic bags.”

Six months have passed since Jilin launched the ban. Since then, about 50 percent of petroleum-based plastic bags have been replaced by biodegradable ones made from polylactic acid (PLA), a biopolymer derived from plant starch. More than 85 percent of plastic bags used by chain supermarkets with annual sales over 200 million yuan are environmentally friendly, according to the commerce department of Jilin.

“The price of green plastic bags is generally 0.1 yuan higher than traditional ones, and most customers don’t mind the price rise,” said a cashier at Zhuozhan Supermarket in the provincial capital of Changchun. The supermarket sells around 200 plastic bags every day.

Changchun resident An Qi said, “We should applaud the government’s decision to use more environmentally friendly plastic bags. I believe it is even better for us to bring our own grocery bags when shopping.”

The ban has also brought about green business opportunities for people like Wang Bin. Wang’s company can produce 1,800 tonnes of PLA plastic annually, which amounts to more than 500,000 green plastic bags daily.

He said the company plans on expanding its yearly production capacity to 5,000 tonnes. Currently, the province has 14 PLA plastic producers.

Song said delegations from other provinces including Yunnan and Hainan have come to Jilin to learn about the ban.

Despite good results, the ban has encountered enforcement obstacles.

Zhao Xu, vice head of the management committee of Changchun economic development zone, has been investigating the ban’s enforcement and observing the development of the PLA industry. “The key problem is that small shops and street vendors in the open market, who are often outside government supervision, have mostly failed to switch their plastic bags.”

“Some stores are still using traditional plastic bags by mixing them with the green ones due to large inventory,” he said. “The industrial chain and marketing of green plastic bags also need improvement.”

“We will work to improve people’s awareness of the ban while strengthening its enforcement. We aim to replace all plastic bags used in big supermarkets and stores with biodegradable ones by the end of this year, and will also try to enhance supervision over small shops and vendors,” said Song.

Song added that the province is planning to turn the ban, which is currently an administrative regulation, into a law to intensify its force.

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