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Blogging Beijing

The 2008 Summer Olympics will punctuate three decades of development and test China's global legitimacy. They've already transformed the way millions of people think and live. Seattleite and Fulbright researcher Daniel Beekman brings you Beijing.

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June 4, 2008 6:22 AM

Fighting white pollution

Posted by Daniel Beekman

Suddenly, they're everywhere...trendy green totes, bulging with corn, pork and bok choi.

China's government has declared war on the thin plastic shopping bag. A nation-wide ban took effect Sunday - one that could drastically reduce 'white pollution' here; for years, tossed bags have carpeted Beijing. According to a survey, Chinese people use 3 billion plastic bags every day.

Sunday's ban arrived in time for the 2008 Olympics; organizers have promoted environmental awareness and responsible consumption ahead of the Games. Only three months remain. On Monday, authorities in Beijing fined a shop 10,000 yuan (US$1,200), citing a plastic bag violation.

Supermarkets and cornerstores now must charge for thicker, reusable plastic bags - in most cases 0.2 to 0.5 yuan. The government has encouraged Chinese shoppers to bring their own bags, preferrably cut from environmentally-friendly materials.

Ireland, Rwanda, Guatemala and San Francisco beat China to punch; a growing number of countries and cities around the world are considering (anti) plastic bag legislation. Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels and City Council President Richard Conlin have proposed a punitive 20-cent tax on plastic and paper bags. No nation-wide ban exists in the United States.

"We brought our own bags today!" crowed a young woman outside the Shuang'an branch Chaoshifa - one of Beijing's most popular grocery chains. "We heard about the ban from T.V. - it's a good thing. We want to protect the environment. We want to host a successful Olympic Games."

"I brought a bag here today," a middle-aged woman said. "Why? To protect the environment - the same as you foreigners do."

Chinese shoppers haven't revolted yet; 77.5 percent of respondents to an online survey conducted by CIIC-COMR, a market research firm, supported the ban.

"I'd say about 70 precent of our customers have been bringing their own bags," said a Chaoshifa checker. "It's great. I've been really impressed. Before the ban, few people brought their own bags. Very few."

Some of Beijing's smaller, cheaper stores will resist the ban...or lose business. Try charging 0.2 for a bag and 0.5 for a snack. It's possible that shoppers here will relapse.

"This plastic prohibition? Inconvient!" a elderly woman complained. "So inconvenient. I don't like change."

"I didn't bring my own bag today," said a young man. "I guess I forgot. I'm all for the ban. Next time I'll remember.

"What's the ban got to do with Beijing's Olympics? We need to protect the environment - that's part of hosting a Games."

"What a great idea," a young woman exclaimed. "I brought my own bag today - I'm not going to throw it away. It may take some time for everyone to get used to the ban, though."

A Chinese Amway pitch-man hovered outside of the Shuang'an branch Chaoshifa - promotional pamphlets in hand.

"We're a green company," he explained, pressing close. "We want to show the Chinese government the advantage of environmental protection. See, our slogan: huanbao xianzai, luse huilai (protect the environment now, enjoy a green tomorrow)."

"That'll be liang mao (0.2 yuan)," said a cornerstore owner. "We're charging for bags now. Not for profit - to reduce 'white pollution.' It's a big problem in Beijing. Hopefully now it'll start to improve."


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