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Showdown on Plastic Bag Charge

The Shanghai Environmental Protection Bureau is headed for a showdown with local shoppers over plans for supermarkets to charge for plastic shopping bags.


Bureau Director Xu Zuxin said 90 percent of respondents to an online survey supported charging for plastic bags to reduce waste.


But the proposal is widely opposed by ordinary supermarket customers.


"I really doubt the credibility of this survey, it's absolutely impossible for so many people to support the idea," said Wang Yumei, a local housewife, adding that plastic bags have become an inseparable part of supermarket shopping.


Since supermarkets entered China in the 1980s, most people have abandoned their traditional baskets. It is common for supermarket customers to ask for extra plastic bags.


Lianhua and Hualian, the two largest supermarket chains in Shanghai, use about 1 million plastic shopping bags each day, most of which are reused as containers for domestic waste.


Local environmental officials say large quantities of plastic bags - which are difficult to treat and recycle as waste - pose a big threat to the environment.


Charging for plastic bags has long been planned by the local Environmental Protection Bureau and it is listed as one of the programs in Shanghai's new round of environmental protection action - a target to be achieved by 2005. But implementing it is likely to be difficult.


"It is for the sake of convenience that we come to shop in supermarkets," said Wang.


"How can we take a basket when going shopping in a supermarket," she asked.


A local customer surnamed Qi said since people had already become accustomed to taking bags for free, it would be difficult for supermarkets to charge.


"If we really have an eye on environmental protection, it is more effective for supermarkets to substitute the current plastic bags with other e-friendly ones rather than just charging for them," he said.


Some local supermarkets, such as Nonggongshang and Carrefour, have launched short-term campaigns since 2000, offering free recyclable paper or cotton bags to raise people's environmental protection awareness.


But the high cost of recyclable bags has made it hard to keep the ball rolling.


No single supermarket is likely to take the initiative to cancel free plastic bags.


"The fact is, if anyone cancels the free bags, their business is sure to be affected," said a manager at Nonggongshang, who asked not to be named.


Metro, the Sino-German wholesale hypermarket chain, has not offered free shopping bags since it opened its first store in the city in 1996. Consumers pay 0.5 yuan (US$0.06) for each shopping bag.


Since Metro is a wholesaler rather than retailer, it is usually of no help to offer small bags for their customers who buy large quantities of goods. The supermarket also prepares free cardboard boxes for their customers, Huang said.


To solve the pending problem, the Shanghai Environmental Protection Bureau is joining other government departments to seek a solution. But officials from the bureau said there is still a long way to go.


(eastday.com November 28, 2003)


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