BEIJING – Accumulates in landfills. It crowds fields and rivers, hangs from trees and forms flotillas of debris in the seas. The use of plastic bags, containers and cutlery by China has become one of the most stubborn and ugly environmental blight.
Therefore, the Chinese government has introduced measures to drastically reduce the amount of disposable plastic items that often become a danger and an eyesore in the country, including in the countryside and in the oceans.
Among the new guidelines are the import bans on plastic waste and the use of non-biodegradable plastic bags in the main cities by the end of this year. Other sources of plastic garbage will be banned in Beijing, Shanghai and the wealthy coastal provinces by the end of 2022, and that rule will be extended throughout the country by the end of 2025.
Previous efforts to reduce the use of plastic bags have failed in China, but the government has indicated that, this time, it will be more serious and systematic to address the problem.
"Consumption of plastic products, especially single use articles, has been constantly increasing " He said an explanation that accompanies the new guidelines, which were published on Sunday by the Ministry of Environment and the main industrial planning agency in China. "There must be a more comprehensive comprehensive planning and systematic deployment to clean up plastic pollution."
The plan is likely to be well received by many Chinese, who are increasingly concerned about air, water, soil and contaminated natural environments. But it could be a difficult sale for a society accustomed to the convenience of online retailers and couriers that deliver hot meals and packages wrapped in plastic.
Although people in China generally generate less plastic waste per capita than Americans, almost three-fourths of China's plastic waste ends up in poorly managed landfills or outdoors.
Environmental activists in China welcomed the effort to reduce the use of plastic, although some said it was not strict or detailed enough. Others raised doubts about the government's ability to develop and promote substitutes for non-biodegradable plastics that remain in the soil, waterways and oceans. for decades, even centuries.
Given the seriousness of China's pollution problems, greater urgency is needed, said Chen Liwen, founder of China Zero Waste Villages, which promotes recycling in rural areas.
"It is certainly better than nothing," he said, adding: "For disposable products, disposable plastic bags or many disposable food utensils, they should be banned altogether."
Tang Damin, an activist in Beijing for Greenpeace East Asia, said in comments sent via email that while "Beijing is addressing the problem seriously and is pressing reusable containers as the right solution," the policy would be much more effective with incentives. as deposit return programs.
The Chinese government seems to think that businesses and consumers need time to get used to life with much less single-use plastic.
Even rich economies have moved cautiously to ban plastic bags. Last year, the state of New York approved A ban on most single-use plastic bags that will take effect on March 1, becoming the second state after California to impose such a ban.
China's plan to end the dependence on disposable plastic establishes three phases until 2025. Restrictions begin in larger cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, then move to smaller cities and towns and, finally, to villages.
By the end of the year, according to the guidelines, China will ban disposable plastic foam cutlery. Stores, restaurants and markets in major cities should stop using non-biodegradable plastic bags before that deadline, and restaurants and food vendors across the country should stop using straws made of non-biodegradable plastic.
China's package delivery sector will have more time to adapt. By the end of 2022, the couriers of Beijing, Shanghai and the rich coastal provinces should stop using non-biodegradable plastic containers, tapes and sacks of single-use plastic fabrics. At the end of 2025, that ban will be extended throughout the country.
The effects of the policy may not be visible immediately, said William Liu, senior consultant in Shanghai at Wood Mackenzie, who advises companies on chemicals, energy and related sectors.
"But in the future," he said in an email, "as the ban extends to more cities and substitute materials gain strength, China's polyethylene consumption will be affected."
A considerable obstacle, given the size of China's consumer market, the ubiquity of the plastic and the amount that is finally thrown away, are the plastic foam containers that most restaurants use for take-out food orders and that rarely They are reused.
Orders sold online through Alibaba, JD.com, Meituan and other Chinese e-commerce points often arrive wrapped in multiple layers of plastic, which apparently reflects the fear of sellers that customers reject dented deliveries or dirty. Chinese courier services used almost 25 billion plastic bags for deliveries in 2018, according to an industry estimate. quoted by Workers & # 39; Daily and other Chinese news media.
"The levels of environmental protection and recycling will really improve only if the entire supply chain continues," said Zheng Yixing, founder of Heli Environmental Technology Company in Beijing, which promotes commercial recycling.
The government said it would consider including companies on the blacklist They make fun of plastic bans. The cooperation of large online retail companies will be crucial, said Tang, the plastics activist.
"Food delivery and e-commerce increased China's dependence on single-use plastics and a general culture of use and disposal," he said. "It's time for Alibaba, JD.com and Meituan to stop avoiding their role in the plastics crisis."
Wen Jing, a 28-year-old office worker in the Beijing financial industry, said he appreciated the proposed restrictions, even if they brought inconvenience.
"There are too many plastic products in life and it is polluting the environment," he said in an interview. "But I think all the right things must be in place for there to be substitutes."
I had just left a supermarket with groceries in a plastic bag. "I bring my own bag," he said, "although sometimes I still don't."
Albee Zhang contributed to the investigation.