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China: You would not like a bag with that

In surprise move, China's central government has banned some plastic bags and the free distribution of others.

It's a fact of life in China that just about anything comes in a little plastic bag. That's all about to change: In what all reports are calling a surprise move, the central government has banned (translated) ultra-thin plastic bags and will require regular bags to be sold with a clearly marked price starting June 1.

This demonstrates the way the government can simply declare an end to a technology for environmental reasons, even a 1950s technology like plastic bags. Whether enforcement will actually end plastic bags is not something I care to guess about.

The key here is to understand what an ultra-thin plastic bag is. Coming from the United States, where the question "paper or plastic" is a cultural institution, I was used to thicker bags. These are problematic enough for the environment, and several cities, countries, and stores. The plastic from these bags deteriorates into microscopic particles, but it does not bio-degrade, resulting in the gradual dispersion of tiny plastic particles throughout the world's oceans.

The bags subject to the ban are even thinner than what I was used to--less than 0.025mm thick. I first encountered them when buying jīanbǐng (煎饼), often known as Chinese crepes or Chinese pancakes, at a university convenience store. Once the 25-cent treat was ready to eat, the cook slipped it in a tiny sack, and I walked off to savor my junk food. These bags started accumulating in my trash bin. Fried noodles came in them, as did roasted nuts, baked goods, and fruit, among other things. I can only imagine that these ultra-thin bags deteriorate faster than the stronger ones.

There's even some hope that the pay-for-bags structure may make the sort of biodegradable bags used at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 appealing to more people. At the very least, one hopes the 2008 Olympics in Beijing will deal with waste gracefully.