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Putting an end to a plastic plague

By Xu Zhengfeng, Asia Times, 17 August 1999

BEIJING - Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province, has become the first Chinese city to ban the use of plastic packaging.

In Zhengzhou, capital of Henan province, posters put up around markets exhort people to use baskets instead of plastic bags on food-shopping trips. To stress the point, its mayor distributed 50,000 wicker and straw baskets to locals, for free.

In Beijing, residents are encouraged to use cloth bags for shopping. Some 2.3 billion plastic bags are thrown away each year in the Chinese capital alone.

And beginning year 2000, the State Economic and Trade Commission, China's top economic supervisor, has announced that the production, selling and use of disposable styrofoam tableware - spoons, chopsticks, bowls, plates and cups - will no longer be tolerated.

Across China, the government and communities are waking up to the environmental headache that society's free use of disposable, non-biodegradable packaging is causing.

Today, a growing number of urban dwellers can barely go a day without using a wide range of disposables, from plastic cups and food containers, to combs, toothbrushes, ballpens and chopsticks. In fact, China is turning into the world's largest market for disposables. Every year, it uses billions of disposable chopsticks, 10 billion disposable food containers, and 20 billion disposable cups.

National demand for disposable food containers is growing at an annual rate of six percent, reports the 'Economic Daily'. At this rate, 10 years from now, total demand for disposables of all types could reach 70 to 90 billion pieces, or over 100 billion if population growth is taken into account.

This means huge losses of precious resources, especially the country's already meagre forest resources, and rising mounds of white garbage - plastic material from food containers to bags that take about 200 years to rot in natural conditions.

The piling up white garbage has led to a major campaign to make Chinese consumers change their throwaway mentality. The state-run 'People's Daily' recently carried a series of articles and commentaries calling on people to use less or no plastic disposables. Every member of the society has the obligation to cut and eliminate 'white pollution' and so protect the ecological environment, the newspaper said.

CCTV, China's national television network, has created commercials against white pollution that airs on prime time on its eight channels.

Many other cities have imposed local restrictions against plastic packaging, including Wuhan, Harbin, Guangzhou and Xiamen, or, as in the case of Hangzhou, provided for fines on violators ranging from 500 yuan ($60) to 5,000 yuan. In March, the Beijing municipal government barred the sale and use of styrofoam containers at railway stations, long-distance bus stations, airports, hotels and scenic spots.

An official from the Central Ethics Promotion Office said China will introduce a garbage classification method so that wastes, especially throwaway plastic products, can be better recycled. In Beijing, marks on new dustbins tell people what kind of waste the bins are intended to receive.

But if there is agreement that China should reduce its use of disposables, deciding what to use as alternatives is a lot trickier.

Wang Zhixue, director of the China Countryside Technological Development Center, says there are now roughly four types of environmentally-friendly containers as substitutes for styrofoam ones, made from paperboard, rice husk, straw or starch.

The paperboard type is safe, healthy and recyclable and more than 100 enterprises in the country produce paperboard food containers with a combined annual output of 3 billion. But opponents argue that paperboard necessitates the felling of trees and causes pollution from pulp making.

Green Eternity Co Ltd, based in Shantou, Guangdong province, produces food containers from rice husk, especially food packaging used in supermarkets. Our food containers decompose fast, said Ji Xiaopeng, general manager of Green Eternity. And rice husk is abundant in China. Green Eternity's production technology and product quality have been rated up to standard by the provincial food administration. It has begun exporting to Japan, Taiwan and the United States.

Rice-husk containers have a competitor: boxes, cups and plates made from straw. Sanshi Green Packaging Company in Shandong province has spent three years developing this type of packaging. which uses cereals as a supplementary material. Decomposed straw containers are a good fertiliser, adds Sanshi manager Li Zhongyu.

The starch-type packaging has many advantages, including the fact that it is made mainly from yam starch, is easily degradable and can be recycled into animal feed.

Su Xiaohai, owner of the Wuhan-based company Far East Green World Corp, says starch containers made by his company will rot away completely within one month. Far East Green World also makes chopsticks from yam starch. It is investing 160 million yuan to expand its production capacity for green disposable products, to 5 billion starch chopsticks and 3.5 billion biodegradable food containers a year.

When our new production line goes into operation by the end of 1999, our starch chopsticks will each year save 500,000 cubic meters of wood, said the company's owner, Su Xiaohai. Su adds that the starch chopsticks projects will benefit about 100,000 people in poor areas of China, since the company will be using more than 200,000 tonnes of sweet potatoes, a staple product in those parts.

Getting people into the habit of using green substitutes however is not easy. Since the Beijing municipal government banned the use of ultra-thin plastic bags at vegetable markets in March, many stall owners continue to use them, while playing cat-and-mouse with the authorities.