THE VINE JUNE 3, 2008
The oft-maligned Chinese environmental regime, like the
oft-maligned American one, has its redeeming stories (James Fallows lucidly reminds
us of many). Here's another: starting June 1st, China has decreed
that consumers will have to pay a fee for plastic bags in supermarkets and
other retail outlets. Of course, this "development" is only the
fulfillment of a January 2008 pledge, but given China's population multiplier
effect, any environmental actions taken merit a swivel of the head.
The move, which bans outright ultrathin plastic bags and
puts a price on all others, is said to save China 37 billion million barrels of oil
annually. The plan joins those in a host of nations and municipalities--from San
Francisco to Liajiang
in southwest China--that
have already declared war on the ubiquitous, petroleum-sucking product. Australia's
scheme to ban
plastic carriers will take effect in January 2009, and a "plasTax" in Irish
stores, now six years old, shrank plastic bag consumption by 277 million units in its
first three months.
Some Chinese commenters
have worried that the fee-for-plastic scheme would be regressive, punishing
lower-income consumers who shop more often, or need to use the bags for
multiple purposes as inflation ticks up in China. Others fretted that the new three-Mao
price was indeed too cheap--unlikely to make a dent in the three billion bags consumed
every year. One may note, of course, that the one-time purchase of a reusable,
non-plastic tote made from cloth or recycled materials would produce long-term
savings and environmental health. One hopes such alternatives (and carts, and
baskets, and such) are available at low cost to meet demand.
But is the real import aesthetic? In 2002, a
found that "plastic bags as litter create a visual pollution problem"--kind of like watching a baby seal drown inside a rubber tyre. Kidding! While I think this take is a little too Ricky Fitts for my liking, a quotidian reminder of the cycle of use and waste is only a good
thing--especially accompanied by a nip in the wallet.
Here in the states, however, I'm pessimistic that such a
national ban on plastic bags would fly. But never fear: the nation that first sent
men to the moon and invented Listerine Pocket Packs has come up with some workable,
solutions. These ventures should be taken to scale
as soon as possible, lest our robust American individualism--the spirit that
sent us west--in this case, leaves us lapped by the east.