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White Pollution Blights Landscape

While enjoying the benefits of modern technology, humankind is also paying a high price. One example of this concerns the plastic bag, which has brought great convenience to people, but has also done huge environmental damage.

Made from polythene, plastic bags in landfill sites are supposed to last between a conservative 200 years to an estimated 1 million years.

That may explain why the plastic bag was once branded the worst invention of the 20th century because it causes worldwide pollution.

Like other countries, China is also suffering from "white pollution," a term coined to describe the unsightly tumbleweed of plastic bags blowing around on our streets.

Over 2 billion bags are believed to be dumped every day in China, where the non-degradable bags are clogging up land, drains and rivers, and are harming wildlife.

It has to be admitted that the emergence of this "white pollution" results from a combination of factors, including China's fast industrialization, rising living standards of Chinese people, and drastic changes in consumption patterns.

With growing economic prosperity in Chinese society over the last two decades, environment-friendly baskets and cloth bags have gradually given way to single-use plastic food containers and plastic shopping bags.

Although related government agencies at all levels have launched campaigns to curb "white pollution" since the mid-1990s, no substantial progress has been made in solving the bag problem.

One major reason for the failure is that policy-makers are neglecting the complex nature of consumption-related environmental problems in China, where most resources are allocated to dealing with production-related pollution.

Environmental administrators put too much emphasis on administrative power and regulations, but have showed little respect for market forces and consumers.

So it is not surprising at all that various urgent measures, such as banning super-thin plastic bags and encouraging the use of baskets and paper bags among shoppers, have been short-lived.

Unless a multi-faceted and long-term strategy is introduced, any single campaign aimed at quick success is unlikely to succeed.

Guo Geng, a political adviser in Beijing, has proposed the introduction of a "bag tax" in a bid to help cut demand for plastic bags and raise more money to tackle pollution caused by the bags. Media reports claim that the Ministry of Finance is conducting a feasibility study for introducing such a tax.

This is surely a good option to start with. Taxing bags has proved successful in Ireland, where demand for plastic bags in retail stores reportedly fell by 90 per cent in five months after a "bag tax" was introduced in March 2001.

But the use of economic leverages like this will not help eliminate the bag problem entirely. While some consumers may shun the use of plastic bags due to the tax, others may still prefer convenience to the little price they have to pay.

So the production and use of degradable bags should be encouraged as a substitute for non-degradable plastic bags to reduce environmental pollution. This will offer a way out for both manufacturers of plastic bags and consumers.

Of course, promoting people's environmental consciousness should, as always, be given importance. The more they know about how severe "white pollution" is, the more voluntarily they will help address the problem.

(China Daily May 31, 2005)


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