BEIJING China launched a surprise crackdown on plastic bags on Tuesday, banning production of ultra-thin bags and forbidding its supermarkets and shops from handing out free carriers from June 1.
China uses too many of the bags and fails to dispose of them properly, wasting valuable oil and littering the country, China's cabinet, the State Council, said in a notice posted on the central government Web site (www.gov.cn).
"Our country consumes huge amounts of plastic bags every year. While providing convenience to consumers, they have also caused serious pollution, and waste of energy and resources, because of excessive use and inadequate recycling," it said.
Worries about pollution are growing among ordinary citizens, as years of breakneck growth take their toll on the country's air and water, but the new ban may not be universally welcomed.
Late last year the southern boom town of Shenzhen sparked a public controversy by unveiling draft regulations to ban free plastic bags in its shops.
Shopkeepers fretted that customers might be turned away and some people accused the government of making residents shoulder the costs of environmental protection.
Part of the new rules seem similar to the Shenzhen plan, stating that from June shops, supermarkets and sales outlets would be forbidden to offer free plastic bags and all carriers must be clearly marked with their prices.
"We should encourage people to return to carrying cloth bags, using baskets for their vegetables," the notice said.
In addition the manufacture, sale and use of bags under 0.025 mm thick is banned from the same date, with fines and confiscation of goods and profits for firms that flout the rules.
The cabinet also said finance authorities should consider adjusting taxes to discourage the production and sale of plastic bags and encourage the recycling industry.
Rubbish collectors were urged to separate plastic for reprocessing and cut the amount burnt or buried.
The move brings China in line with a growing international trend to cut back use of plastic bags. From Ireland to Uganda and South Africa governments have experimented with heavy taxes, outright bans or eliminating the thinnest bags.
In some countries where the central government has not acted communities ranging from San Francisco to a small British town have taken unilateral action to outlaw the carriers.
Chinese people use up to 3 billion plastic bags a day and the country has to refine 5 million tons (37 million barrels) of crude oil every year to make plastics used for packaging, according to a report on the Web site of China Trade News (www.chinatradenews.com.cn).