I’m back in Beijing and the big piece of non-earthquake/non-Olympic news here is the new ban on free plastic bags. According to China Daily

From June 1 on, all Chinese retailers, including supermarkets, department stores and grocery stores, would no longer provide free plastic shopping bags.

The number of plastic bags consumed in China is literally unbelievable. It’s estimated that Beijing alone consumes nearly 10 billion plastic bags annually, which is equivalent to around 27 million bags per day. Really.

So this is great news for everybody I guess, but especially for China’s overworked, underappreciated environmental activists. Last year I got to know a bunch of them while I was doing research for the 桌志 | Eat Up project and I thought, to celebrate the new policy, I’d post up a conversation I had with Takeshi Ikeda, an organizer for Global Village Beijing, one of China’s earliest environmental NGOs. At the time he was spearheading an information campaign aimed at reducing the use of plastic bags. He talked a lot about the challenges of doing environmental activism in China, and he actually ended up saying the public advocacy doesn’t really work here. Anyway, I found it really interesting, check it out….

I read in a magazine about the “Bye Bye Throw Away Culture”campaign that you helped organize around Earth Day this year. How did that get started?

We set up this campaign last year, in October. The main aim is to reduce plastic bags, and by doing so reducing our environmental impact. We tried to do this by promoting the “three R principles” – reduce, reuse, and recycle – with the emphasis placed more on reduce and reuse. Recycling still requires production, because you have to reproduce it, and that’s a process of polluting and consuming more energy. At least you avoid the raw material extraction, but still we focus more on reduction and reusing material.

How do you get that message out?

Our strategy is twofold: one is increasing people’s awareness of the environmental issue and, on the other hand, we try to work with supermarkets and retailers to encourage them to adopt a plastic bag reduction policy – for example by charging for bags and creating economical incentives for customers to bring their own bags. So far, we’ve been more inclined towards the promotional-educational part, because actually working with stores is really, really difficult, because they their own profit [concerns], they have their own business strategy, they have their own public relations strategy. So, it hasn’t been going very well. Even at the participant stores, in the beginning they may have adopted some [plastic bag reduction] policies, but it doesn’t last. It’s kind of difficult to operate, so eventually, they don’t continue it.

Another problem that we’ve been facing is a lack of influence among the people – even in Beijing. I always feel the need to do something to draw people’s attention, through the media, etc. The activity that you came to know used Earth Day to try to make an event as big as possible. So that campaign was not only about plastic bags, but throw-away culture in general. As the name says, “Bye-bye throw away culture week”. It was a week-long campaign to reconsider lifestyle, and encourage people to make a more sustainable way. I used the Earth Day, 22 April, because, during that time, people, media and students [are talking about the environment]. I was really surprised last year to see how big Earth Day can be. In Japan, nobody knows what the 22nd of April means. Seriously, it’s only among the NGOs or environmentalists. But here in China, I would say it’s much bigger than in Japan – that’s the impression I got. So, I took advantage of that.

What other kinds of events have you done?

We just had an event last weekend at a vegetable market, not supermarket, just a [farmer’s] market. There we did some research. It was actually a promotional activity, but mainly we were doing research. I designed a questionnaire that had questions, like “Do you know a lot about the environment problems caused by the excessive use of plastic bags?” And 98 percent of the people said, “Yes, I do.” And I was even told, “Who doesn’t know? Everyone knows.” And some people were obviously getting upset, like “Don’t ask me stupid questions.”

Did that surprise you?

I wasn’t shocked. I already knew, because every time I do that at schools, passersby are like, “Mr Ikeda, I think we should change direction and focus more on something else. We just don’t know what we should focus on.” But I wasn’t convinced enough, maybe because it was always in universities. Students really do know, and volunteers feel that – we all know these problems, and Chinese aren’t unenvironmentally-oriented people. But that vegetable market event last weekend convinced me of what I was already thinking – no more promotion. If you want to do it, it has to be in a visual way – on TV with really really scary, disgusting images of plastic bags coming out animals’ guts. Other than that, I think people feel like: we all know, but we don’t have enough incentive, and it’s not our fault. You often hear “It’s not our fault.” While people were getting upset with me – “Don’t ask me that stupid question!” – they were also saying, “Don’t ask me to change, because it none of my fault. The stores hand the bags out and the government’s not taking any action…” And actually that’s not true, the government has regulations, and the thing is that they do know the regulation is in existence. So, then it’s like, “Ok, so you guys know there’s a regulation, but you’re still blaming everyone else.”

But they make sense. The point they are making makes sense: they all know, but it’s not their fault, because they don’t have enough incentive to change. So after that event, I collected all the results, and put it in an excel chart, and as the results come out, it’s more clear where I should put the focus – policy. I’ve been working on it, but part time. I was spending more time on organizing events, but now I want to work on creating a system that makes it payable. I think that’s the only way to actually curb consumption. As long as it’s free – or supposedly free, because there’s a hidden cost to plastic bags – then it’s really difficult to curb consumption patterns. So, that’s a change in my direction. The question now is how can we find a channel to access the authorities? I have one who works as a consultant to the municipal government, but we’ll see…

What other obstacles to come across as an activist here?

The other thing is that it’s a hundred times easier if I work on a campaign that advocates the protection of animals or forests in Yunnan or Sichuan Province or even in Indonesia. Everyone is happy to take part in this kind of petition. I don’t think you would have one exception, everyone would say, “Yeah! You’re right. We should do that.” But while you’re saying that, nobody knows what we can do. Because we don’t know how it’s associated with our lifestyle, people can easily express their appreciation. But things will change if I say, “Well, in order to protect the forest over there, I need to charge more for each piece of paper you consume.”

I’m now trying to work with printing companies and shops in local communities. Now they charge one Mao (.10 RMB) or less, but if I advocate the we should charge five Mao per page, people say, “Why the hell are you doing that? Are you working with a paper company?” And I say, “No, it’s just the fact that they’re using paper from forests. And say, hypothetically, that all the paper had to come from that area, then there’s no other solution. Then we can’t blame the producer either, because there’s a market so loggers have to go cut down trees for paper. So that’s why I have to charge more, unfortunately. Do you agree with that? Would you sign this petition?” And that’s the situation that I’m in. I’m not advocating protecting a polar bear.

How do you react to this kind of negative response?

Even though it’s a very limited population, I can get very good reaction from university students by talking about the “lifecycle assessment” of products. So, I have powerpoint, and I even have a poster, and I emphasize that we shouldn’t just focus on what happens after you’ve used a product – especially packaged products. People only focus on degradability – is it going back to soil easily or not. That’s one issue, but the main issue is not actually what happens after you discard something. It’s before it even comes to the table or the shelf of a store – that’s where the major environmental destruction happens. It depends on the product, but for most products, the extraction of raw materials and the production stage is what causes the consumption of all these resources and pollution generation.

And when I explain that, most of the people get it. And I always conclude by saying, “It doesn’t really matter what kinds of products you use, as long as you’re maintaining an excessive amount of daily consumption. There’s ten or twenty million plastic bags used per day just in Beijing. Surely, it would still have an impact if those were paper bags or degradable bags. The bottom line is reducing consumption.” Then people say, “But bags are so convenient. You can’t take these bags away from us.” And I say, “When did I say I’m hoping to eliminate bags? I’m not doing that, I’m just encouraging you to reuse them, just as you would with cloth. Nobody would throw a shirt away after wearing it once, except maybe Hollywood stars. Just regard your plastic bags as things that you cherish.” Then I always pull out the yellow plastic bag that I’ve been using for about half a year, and that gives a visual impact. And until they see it, a lot people don’t consider that you can reuse plastic bags. And then I just say, “Yeah, who said plastic bags are a really, really bad thing? It’s just a matter of excessive or not excessive. I would fight to reduce the use of cotton bags if people just used them once and threw them away.”

And then some people say, “But that only works for you or maybe someone like me who’s patient enough to stand here, but look at them. Nobody’s listening to you, they’re just walking away. What are you going to do?” Then I would move on to introduce ideas like the plastic bag charge. By bringing this issue up I’m very likely to have an argument with a lot of people, and then I’m the only one who’s advocating. But that’s a process of making them familiar with a policy that I believe sooner or later will be coming. I’d say it has more likelihood than banning plastic bags. That’s just not realistic, because plastic bag dependency here in China is actually greater than in the west, because here they’re even used to hold food like baozi or soup. And you can’t really do that with paper, and you wouldn’t want to ruin your favorite cloth bag by putting unwashed vegetable or greasy baozi in it.

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