10 years since China’s ban on plastic bags, food delivery services now a major source of plastic waste

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It has been almost 10 years since December 2007, when a ban on free plastic bags went into effect across China. An article has appeared on Chinese media outlet Ifeng, asking what the ban’s results have been. Observation reveals that there are still small supermarkets and shops that provide free plastic bags for their customers. The real issue however is that the break-neck development of food delivery services and online shopping in recent years has created a major new source of plastic pollution.

The huge popularity of food delivery services in Chinese cities represents a particular environmental headache. Most of the take-out lunch boxes are made of non-degradable materials, which increases the cost of garbage disposal. According to data presented on the official website of “Meituan food delivery” (美团外卖), one of the most popular delivery service apps, at present Meituan’s daily volume of orders amounts to 12 million, and its cumulative number of users has reached 200 million. If we assume that each order involves at least one plastic bag and one disposable plastic lunch box, then there are at least 24 million plastic products being consumed every day. China’s online shopping revolution is also the cause of a huge consumption of plastic. Based on statistics by the National Post Department, in 2016 there were about 31.3 billion express deliveries made across the country. This massive volume of deliveries relies upon an enormous number of plastic bags and wrappings, far offsetting any gain made from the ban on free plastic bags in supermarkets.

The Ifeng article analyzes whether there any ways in which China’s food delivery services could be made more environmentally-friendly. The main way would be to use biodegradable plastic dishware rather than ordinary plastic, it concludes. However, even most biodegradable plastic is not really completely degradable; what’s more biodegradable plastic costs two to three times as much as ordinary plastic, and this is the reason most restaurants are going to continue choosing non-degradable plastic take-out lunch boxes to deliver their food.

The best way to reduce pollution from plastic would therefore simply be to use less disposable plastic products, researchers on urban environmental pollution control suggest. Large scale chain restaurants should consider using biodegradable plastic products; meanwhile the state should also set some standards for making plastic lunch boxes so as to gradually reduce the use of non-degradable plastic.