Bans on plastic straws, plates and cutlery come in as China ramps up its war on plastic to reduce the volume of waste the country generates

Alice Yan
·4-min read

China’s vow to clean up the country by reducing plastic waste in 2021 is moving full steam ahead, with more local governments joining the campaign last week.

Announcing its action plan, Chengdu, a city of 16.3 million people and the capital of Sichuan province, said it would ban the use of plastic straws in restaurants, cafes and tea houses. It has also called on supermarkets and shops to stop using non-biodegradable plastic bags from next year.

In the Guangdong capital Guangzhou, similar orders were issued, with disposable plastic tableware – including containers and utensils – added to the list of banned items.

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A dozen other Chinese cities had earlier thrown their weight behind the National Development and Reform Commission’s phased approach to addressing the country’s enormous plastic waste issue. The measures include promoting recycling and green packaging, as well as reducing the volume of waste being sent to overflowing garbage dumps.

Earlier this year, in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak, Chinese President Xi Jinping called for a “green recovery” of the world economy.

China is one of the world’s biggest producers of waste; last year it generated 81.8 million tonnes of plastic waste, an increase of almost four per cent from the previous year, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. However, the United States produces more waste per person than China, according to Forbes magazine.

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Surprisingly, Canada is the worst performer environmentally, producing more than 1.33 billion tonnes of waste per year.

Earlier this year, China’s biggest city, Shanghai, prohibited the use of non-biodegradable plastic bags for food packaging and delivery services. The ban was extended to shopping malls, supermarkets, pharmacies and exhibition halls.

Rapidly rising e-commerce businesses and food delivery services have been blamed, in part, for the increase in the volume of China’s plastic waste.

We are sending a clear message to consumers and the public that we must cut down reliance on plastic products

Liu Jianguo, a professor from Tsinghua University’s School of Environment

China Youth Daily reported that the e-commerce industry generates 1.8 million tonnes of plastic waste each year, while food deliveries to urban residents produces an enormous 350 tonnes of plastic waste a day, according to Chinese news website The Paper.

A booming milk tea industry – along with the sale of bubble tea and soft drinks – across China contributed to a rise in plastic straw production last year to 30,000 tonnes – or 46 billion straws.

Liu Jianguo, a professor from Tsinghua University’s School of Environment, believes banning the use of plastic straws is a good first step.

A labourer sorting out plastic bottles for recycling on the outskirts of Beijing. Photo: AFP
A labourer sorting out plastic bottles for recycling on the outskirts of Beijing. Photo: AFP

“It’s a good opportunity for plastic straws to start the roll-out of the plastics limitation campaign,” he said. “We are sending a clear message to consumers and the public that we must cut down reliance on plastic products, which will help build a more environmentally friendly lifestyle.”

A spokesman for McDonald’s China said the ban would effectively reduce plastic straw waste by 400 tonnes each year across its 3,500 branches.

While the clean-up initiative has been applauded by environmental groups globally, the government’s decision to switch to biodegradable plastics will not solve China’s plastic pollution crisis, according to the Greenpeace East Asia plastics researcher Molly Zhongnan Jia.

Starbucks’ 28,000 outlets in China has replaced plastic straws with paper ones, leading some people to complain their straws become soggy before they can finish their drinks. Photo: Getty Images
Starbucks’ 28,000 outlets in China has replaced plastic straws with paper ones, leading some people to complain their straws become soggy before they can finish their drinks. Photo: Getty Images

Jia said the increased production of biodegradable plastic was just “switching from one type of plastic to another”.

Biodegradable plastics take about six months in a perfectly controlled environment – with temperatures as high as 49 degrees Celsius (120 degrees Fahrenheit) and carefully managed humidity – to break down. Yet China is home to few such facilities, she said.

“Many biodegradable plastics require specific temperature and humidity conditions to break down, which are not found in nature,” Jia said. “In the absence of controlled composting facilities, most biodegradable plastics end up in landfills, or worse, in rivers and the ocean.”

China’s war on plastic is long-standing. In 2008 it banned retailers – such as shops and supermarkets – from handing out free plastic bags to shoppers.

A block of compressed plastic bottles at a plastic waste centre on the outskirts of Beijing. Photo: AFP
A block of compressed plastic bottles at a plastic waste centre on the outskirts of Beijing. Photo: AFP

However, not everyone is eager to embrace the more environmentally friendly alternatives to plastic.

“I support the environmental initiative, but to be honest, the paper straw is not convenient at all,” wrote one person on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter. “It will be soft and will melt after being in the beverage for a long time.”

“After Starbucks began using paper straws, I didn’t order its signature product, Frappuccino, any more,” wrote another user.

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