During the windy season it is common to see crummy plastic bags being blown about city streets and parks. This is a slight seasonal variation on the smelly piles of bottles, cans and other un-recycled packaging materials that litter field and street corner alike throughout the year.
It is estimated that Chinese cities produce nearly 200 million tons of garbage a year. As cities expand and urbanization picks up pace, we risk one day finding ourselves encircled by heaps of garbage, with no fresh air to inhale and no clean water to drink - unless we take action.
We dump unwanted materials into the garbage, both at home and at work. And facilities to treat and dispose of this waste fall short of the task before them. Furthermore, many cities do not even bother to sort their residents' waste, which has made it difficult to recover otherwise recyclable material.
Although there are many disposal sites throughout the country, few steps have been taken to rein in the pollution they cause. And to make things worse, rag-pickers, stray animals and even the wind spread the waste, resulting in awful smells, the circulation of potentially harmful substances and pests.
Of all the garbage out there, plastic waste, which can take a long time to break down, bears a lot of blame for harming the environment, though plastics account for only a small percentage of the litter in this country.
China is one of the world's leading consumers of plastic, most of which is used for packaging. The country produced about 2 million tons of plastic waste a year during the mid-1990s. That has since grown to 7 million tons a year. Some of these plastics end up in landfills. (I wonder where this stuff will be treated when the country's landfills are full), and some ends up in our environment.
China's per capita plastic consumption is about 14 kg, compared with about 20 kg in some Western countries, so the situation might strike some as not as serious as it could be. But that is only part of the story. China still lacks the legal means needed to control the over-use of plastics in packaging, despite widespread calls for tighter legislation.
Various countries have adopted regulations to assign responsibility for dealing with the use, recovery and re-use of waste plastics. It is common to label plastic goods with the recycling symbol to remind people not to just throw away such goods when they finish with them.
Furthermore, consumers in such countries have a stronger sense of environmental protection. While shopping, many use their own bags instead of the plastic ones provided for free by shops. In some countries, people get rewards for shopping like this.
Even in some developing countries, there have been measures to curb the use of plastic bags, such as asking people to pay for them or banning the import of certain types of bags. Some countries have taken measures to encourage the development of environment-friendly shopping bags.
Plastic packaging and its consequences on the environment have long been a hot issue worldwide. However, despite the widespread concern, plastics continue to proliferate. In a sense packaging is necessary to help extend the shelf life of a given product and cater to markets far away from the manufacturing sites. It can also help burnish a brand's image by showing off a product's quantity, how it used or when it expires.
However, the increased demand for packaged products has resulted in increased packaging waste and the inevitable pollution. Furthermore, the excessive consumption of plastic packaging materials will eventually result in such serious consequences as depleted natural resources, more energy consumed and polluted water and air.
All people share a responsibility for this problem - from the firms that make plastics, to the shopkeepers who use them and the consumers who throw them away. It is up to all of us to walk away from packaging waste, especially when it is plastic.
(China Daily by Xi Mi December 19, 2007)