BEIJING (Reuters) - China is about to try to kick a 3 billion-a-day plastic bag habit. But breaking the addiction, in a bid to save energy and protect the environment, will be easier said than done.
The world's most populous nation on Sunday will join a growing list of countries, from Ireland to Bangladesh, that are aiming to change shoppers' habits when a ban on the production of plastic bags under 0.025 millimeters thick comes into force.
Ultra-thin bags are the principal target of the crackdown because they are typically used once and then discarded, adding to waste in a country that is increasingly conscious of the air and water pollution caused by its breakneck economic growth.
Shopkeepers will also be barred from handing out free plastic carrier bags except for fresh and cooked foods. Those breaking the law face fines and could have their goods confiscated.
China consumes 37 million barrels of what is now very expensive crude oil each year to churn out the 3 billion plastic bags that its 1.3 billion people use on average each day, according to official figures.
Ma Zhanfeng, secretary-general of the China Plastics Processing Industry Association, expects the ban to bite.
"Domestic demand for plastic bags will drop drastically from 1.6 million tonnes a year to around 1.1 million tonnes," said Ma, who has nearly 20 years' experience in the industry.
Bag makers have already felt the pinch from the looming restrictions. Some have even been forced out of business.
But Ning Rongju with Friends of Nature, a local non-governmental organization, says all will depend on whether the new rules are enforced, especially in cities such as Beijing, where demand for bags in the capital's many markets is huge.
"The execution and monitoring of the law will actually determine the future of plastic bags," she said.
Xiao Ling, the mother of a 6-year-old boy, said her family was already in the habit of using nylon shopping bags. But she, too, was skeptical.
"Getting rid of all ultra-thin bags will take a long time," she said while out shopping at a Wal-Mart supermarket in Beijing.
For China's plastic processors, the curbs are the latest blow to a sector struggling with soaring raw material and labor costs, a rising exchange rate and an end to export tax rebates.
The plastic bag industry is highly segmented, with factories in almost every province.
One major centre is Taizhou, a city in southeastern Zhejiang province where more than 10,000 manufacturers of plastic products enjoy sales of 40 billion yuan ($5.73 billion) each year, according to the Taizhou Plastic Industry Association.
Chen Jiazeng, the group's director, admitted that "small factories might ignore the rule and keep making ultra-thin bags" as long as they can make money.
The prospect that some underground manufacturers will turn a blind eye to the law is especially unsettling for smaller firms.
Taizhou Xinxing Plastic Packing Co Ltd, which employs 300 people and has annual sales of about 15 million yuan, mostly from plastic bags, is considering switching to other plastic goods.
"The new policy will make plastic bags even more expensive," Su Xiaobing, the company's sales manager, explained. "We won't have any price advantage then."
Fear of illegal competition is shared by big manufacturers such as Huiqiang in central Henan province, whose plastic bags all conform with the new national standards.
A sales manager who gave only his surname, Xue, said his firm had no quarrel with the policy but was worried about how it would be implemented.
"We're afraid we'll see small underground plants continuing to make ultra-thin bags if there is demand for them," Xue said. "We risk losing our market share by following the rules."