BEIJING – It's piled up in landfills. It clutters fields and rivers, dangles from trees, and forms flotillas of waste in the seas. China's use of plastic bags, containers and cutlery has become one of its most stubborn and ugliest environmental blights.
So the Chinese government has introduced measures to drastically cut the amount of disposable plastic items that often become a hazard and an eyesore in the country, even deep in the countryside and in the oceans.
Among the new guidelines are bans on the importation of plastic waste and the use of nonbiodegradable plastic bags in major cities by the end of this year. Other sources of plastic garbage will be banned in Beijing, Shanghai and wealthy coastal provinces by the end of 2022, and that rule will extend nationwide by late 2025.
Previous efforts to reduce the use of plastic bags have faltered in China, but the government has indicated that, this time, it will be more serious and systematic in tackling the problem.
"Consumption of plastic products, especially single-use items, has been consistently rising," said an explanation accompanying the new guidelines, which were released Sunday by the environment ministry and China's chief industrial planning agency. "There needs to be stronger comprehensive planning and a systematic rollout to clean up plastic pollution."
The plan is likely to be welcomed by many Chinese, who have become increasingly worried about polluted air, water, soil and natural surroundings. But it could be a hard sell for a society used to the convenience of online retailers and couriers who deliver hot meals and packages swaddled in plastic.
Although people in China generally generate less plastic waste per capita than Americans, almost three-quarters of China's plastic waste ends up in landfills or out in the open.
Tang Damin, a campaigner in Beijing for Greenpeace East Asia, said that while "Beijing is addressing the problem seriously and pushing reusable containers as the right solution," the policy would be far more effective with incentives like deposit-return programs.
The Chinese government appears to think that companies and consumers need time to get used to life with much less single-use plastic.
Even wealthy economies have moved gingerly to ban plastic bags. Last year, New York state approved a ban on most single-use plastic bags that takes effect March 1, making it only the second state after California to impose such a prohibition.
China's plan for ending reliance on throwaway plastic sets out three phases until 2025. The restrictions start in bigger cities like Beijing and Shanghai, then move to smaller cities and towns, and lastly to villages.
By the end of the year, the guidelines say, China will ban disposable foam plastic cutlery. Shops, restaurants and markets in major cities will have to stop using nonbiodegradable plastic bags by that deadline, and restaurants and food vendors nationwide will have to stop using straws made from nonbiodegradable plastic.