Plastic bag ban fails its first public test

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 January, 2008, 12:00am

Survey finds more than half against Beijing's environmentally friendly decision

More than half of mainland residents in an official online survey yesterday opposed the central government's decision to ban free plastic bags from supermarkets, shopping malls and rural marketplaces from June 1.

The main concern was 'inconvenience', according to the more than 30,000 people surveyed by the Communist Party mouthpiece, People's Daily. Similar surveys conducted on popular internet portals have yielded similar - or higher - percentages of people against the ban.

However, the central government's pronouncement on Tuesday won a great deal of praise and support from commentators, environmental groups, big retailers and even some plastic bag manufacturers on the mainland.

Li Wei , an office clerk working in Beijing's central business district, was divided over the idea, but typical of the many who voted against it. 'I like the idea of limiting the use of plastic bags because it is a good thing for society,' she said. 'But why should I, a small citizen, bear the extra inconvenience? Why should I, a struggling customer, pay the extra cost?

'We are taxpayers. The government has no right to make such a universal and coercive decision totally out of the blue.'

Small business owners were also worried. Qin Haifeng , who runs a fried pancake shop in a Beijing hutong, said he had no other way to package his food and forcing people to pay for bags would drive away customers. 'My pancakes cost 50 fen each. If I charge a customer 30 fen for the bag, he will never return,' Mr Qin said. 'Then I will try to find a job at Carrefour.'

Any effort to change a rooted social practice is destined to face resistance, which is often powerful and prevalent, according to Gao Dingguo , director of the psychology department at Sun Yat-Sen University.

He said consumer psychology was based on the ideas of convenience, desire for lower costs and a lifetime of habits. These were difficult to break unless an incident sent a powerful shock through society.

Professor Gao said bird flu had such an impact in Hong Kong, where it changed the traditional preference for buying live chickens.

In the absence of a powerful event, administrative power could be employed to force a break with the past but this would be difficult and time-consuming, and the outcome would depend on other simultaneous and equally important efforts such as education and public awareness campaigns. 'It depends on how well you can convince people that by abandoning plastic bags, the returns on their social contribution will be greater than their personal sacrifices,' Professor Gao said.

Wal-Mart China spokeswoman Huang Jianling said the retail giant was happy, willing and ready to accept the latest regulation.

'We have been promoting the idea for years, but it is difficult to have all customers understanding and accepting alternatives to plastic bags,' she said. 'The government's support is timely and necessary.'

Men Xiaowei , deputy director of the Ministry of Commerce's reform department, told Xinhua yesterday that the ministry was drafting detailed regulations to make sure the order was implemented in targeted sectors.

It is not the first time a Chinese government has tried to change habits through administrative orders.

Between the late 1920s and early 1930s, former leader Chiang Kai-shek launched a 'New Life Movement' against mahjong, spitting and use of the toothpick.

It ended in failure.