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China Leads the Way. Or Does It?

Reducing plastic pollution is a global priority as the ocean is turning into a plastic soup.  Many people see reducing plastic checkout bags as a great first step.  While there are over a hundred local checkout bag ordinances in the U.S., no state government has acted yet to reduce plastic litter in a meaningful way, except for the few states that have a bottle redemption bill.  China recently marked the five year anniversary for their plastic bag ban and announced the 'Operation Green Fence' program to improve recycling imports, but is it enough?

Leading up to the Beijing Olympics, China made sweeping changes to improve their global reputation.  One change was aimed at reducing plastic bag litter.  The rules, which took effect on June 1, 2008, ban the manufacture or use of the thinnest types of plastic bags. They also prohibit supermarkets, department stores, and grocery stores from giving away thicker varieties, requiring them to charge customers for the bags.

While the government claims big reductions, others claim there is room for improvement.  Grist reports, “[T]he regulation has not been carried out effectively and super-thin bags are still being used, even at large supermarkets, according to a report by the International Food Packaging Association on Thursday to coincide with the fifth anniversary of the regulation.”  In the U.S., enforcement has not been an issue with the various local ordinances around the country.

Another positive sign earlier this year was the announcement of the 'Operation Green Fence' program.  Since 2007, trash has been a top export from the U.S. to China as we search for something to fill up the shipping containers crossing back over the Pacific Ocean.  As the volume of materials grew, so did the contamination.  One example included living mice, bullets and combustible flares included in a container load of juice boxes.  While it's good to demand higher quality materials for recycling, it does come with consequences and a Washington Post blog does a good job of explaining the possibilities.  All of them point to consumers being better recyclers but we also need business to pitch in with less packaging and more reusable/recyclable products.

Amidst all of this good news, word came that China was ending its 14 year ban on expanded polystyrene foam foodware.  While an established plastic bag ban and letting the world know China is not a dumping ground is laudable, removing the EPS foam foodware ban is a step in the wrong direction.  It appears to be business pressure that led to the change.  An industry insider told Want China Times that if the government failed to come up with complementary policies and measures, the safety of using polystyrene tableware could not be ensured, while the insufficient supervision of recycling is expected to exacerbate the waste problem.

As we watch the world, it's important to continue to make progress locally to stop plastic pollution.  Refuse plastic whenever you can and vote with your dollars but supporting local businesses.  Get involved with your local Surfrider Chapter and be part of the movement to Rise Above Plastics!