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China to sack plastic shopping bags

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REUTERS/Sean Yong

(Read caption) A woman pays for her purchases at a Carrefour supermarket in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, China.

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A growing acknowledgment of the ecological damage caused by thin plastic shopping bags is prompting more and more communities to ban them. Last year, San Francisco outlawed the things for large supermarkets and pharmacies. Last week, the city council in Malibu, Calif., gave large retailers six months to phase out the bags. And now the town of Plymouth, Massachusetts, is considering a ban.

Oh, and China.

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The world's most populous country, which according to Reuters uses three billion plastic bags a day, will be instituting a ban on June 1. After that, production of all plastic bags less than 0.025 millimeters thick will be banned. Retailers will no longer be permitted to hand out the bags except for fresh and cooked foods.

Thicker plastic bags will still be permitted, but the law requires shopkeepers to charge customers for them.

Reuters reports that the ban will save China 37 million barrels of crude oil each year. But the story quotes many who are skeptical that the ban can be enforced. The plastic bag manufacturers who spoke to Reuters expressed concern about competitors flouting the law.

Perhaps the world's most ubiquitous consumer good, plastic bags are known to cause widespread damage to the environment. Made from petroleum or natural gas, they take more than 1,000 years to break down under normal conditions. Until then, many billow from trees, clog storm drains, or wind up in the ocean, where they may choke and entangle marine birds and mammals, and particularly sea turtles, who have trouble distinguishing them from jellyfish.

Many of the bags find their way to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a swirling mass of trash – 80 percent of it plastic – that is twice the size of Texas.

China is not the only country to have announced a ban on plastic bags. According to another Reuters story, several countries have moved to eliminate the bags, including Australia, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Eritrea, France, Ireland, Italy, and Rwanda.