Shenzhen City in south China's Guangdong Province is considering passing an ordinance to end free use of plastic shopping bags supplied by retailers.
The city's legislative affairs office has been soliciting opinions on a revised draft of an environmental protection regulation that would end the three-decade-long retail practice of providing free plastic shopping bags.
The draft Environmental Protection Regulation stipulates that retailers will be fined from 5,000 to 50,000 yuan (667 to 6,667 U.S. dollars) if they provide free plastic bags or fail to provide environment-friendly shopping bags or reusable baskets.
Zeng Suisheng, chief of the economic laws and regulations section of Shenzhen's legislative affairs office, said his office had posted the draft on the city's website and had written to more than 40 departments to seek opinions.
The environmental protection department has defended its proposal by listing statistics on the environmental impact of plastic bags.
The department stated that retailers across Shenzhen use at least 1.75 billion plastic bags each year. Most of those bags would decompose only after 200 years and some never would, the department said.
Some industry experts welcomed the proposal as a contrast to previous moves that amounted to lecturing consumers.
"The use of plastic bags can be reduced in an efficient way with economic incentives, as consumers must bear the cost when shopping," a department statement said.
Dong Jinshi, deputy chairman of the professional committee of plastic recycling with the China Plastic Production Industry Association (CPPIA), firmly supported Shenzhen's efforts.
"Shenzhen City should urgently investigate and pilot the use of plastic bag substitutes and ensure a stable supply of reliable, reasonably priced substitutes," said Dong.
"Shenzhen could pave the way for other Chinese cities in tackling white pollution."
However, the free distribution of plastic bags, which was introduced in Guangdong province in the early 1980s, is taken for granted by many customers as a convenience retailers are supposed to offer.
A woman surnamed Zhang, who was shopping at Wanfeng supermarket in Futian District, said if the supermarket did not give free plastic bags, she would be unable to carry home her groceries.
A local resident surnamed Ding described the city's move as an act aiming at getting attention. "Shenzhen is a city with a fast-moving lifestyle, who do you think will carry a basket for shopping? It will be unimaginable to go to work by metro while bringing a basket along," said Mr. Ding.
With prices having risen so fast, why did city authorities insist on doing something that would add costs, asked another resident, surnamed Zhong: "Why not let the business operators offer degradable bags?"
One posting on Tencent.Com said the government should not just impose fines but should spend more to encourage the public to use fewer plastic bags or shift to environment-friendly substitutes.
In a survey jointly carried out last week of 1,786 people by the Social Surveys Center of China Youth Daily and the press center of Sina.com, 73.9 percent of the respondents supported Shenzhen's plan and favored the paid use of plastic bags in their localities.
Also, 92.5 percent said they were willing to shoulder inconveniences to protect the environment, while 50.7 percent recommended incentives to get people to switch, instead of imposing fines.
Some retailers in Shenzhen have started to prepare for the charges.
Chen Songmei, manager of the cashiers' section with the Caifu shop of Xinyijia General Merchandise Chainstore, said that he believed charging for shopping bags would improve environmental protection awareness.
Chen expressed confidence that Xinyijia's sales would not be affected by charging for shopping bags, as the law would apply to the entire retail sector. "Consumers will not stop shopping just because they will have to pay extra for carrier bags," said Chen.
Yu Qiuhua, publicity manager of Tianhong, another chain store, said the group's stores had been giving away free degradable plastic bags since 1994 and had also distributed about 100,000 cloth bags free of charge each year. Yu said the chain had no immediate plan to charge for degradable bags, which are more expensive than the plastic bags given out by most stores.
Zeng Suisheng, chief of the economic laws and regulations section of the legislative affairs office of Shenzhen City, said he had not expected such a strong public response to the proposal.
Zeng said most of the e-mails and letters his office had received supported the proposal.
"The white pollution caused by excessive use of plastic bags will be solved permanently only if society can reach a consensus, and the government, business operators and consumers make concerted efforts," said Zeng.
He said that no other details -- such as the proposed cost of each bag, or how the costs would be shared among the government, businesses and the public -- were available at the moment.
"We will work closely with other government departments and adjust the draft after considering public opinions and suggestions," said Zeng. "The government should bear greater responsibility, but Shenzhen people should also abandon unhealthy habits, such as using plastic bags."
(Xinhua News Agency November 23, 2007)