Chinese workers? Let them pick up litter

The hysterical campaign against plastic bags in the West is causing massive job losses in the East, and leaving people on the scrap heap.

Angus Kennedy

Topics Science & Tech

The banning of plastic bags was exposed at the weekend as plain ‘bad’ science, yet no apology is forthcoming. Instead, environmental one-upmanship escalates, Chinese workers are left on the smug rubbish heaps of green conceit, economic growth goes discredited, and we all kow-tow to the new eco-authoritarianism.

Rebecca Hosking, the British campaigner against plastic carrier bags, preached to us ‘how plastic is lethal in the marine environment, killing at least 100,000 birds, whales, seals and turtles every year, and how, even after the animal dies, its body decomposes so that the plastic is released back into the environment where it can kill again; how an estimated one million seabirds choke or get tangled in plastic nets and debris every year. And so the horror goes on.’ (1) Sickened to her core by a vision of a world where only plastic would survive, she banished the carriers of evil from her sleepy town of Modbury, England, and looked set to free the whole nation from the Curse Of The Bag That Could Not Die. Yet now it turns out that plastic bags can’t really kill whales after all.

They may be brilliant for carrying fish home, but they turn out to be rubbish at strangling seals. According to scientific reports discussed in the British media at the weekend: ‘There is no scientific evidence to support the claim that 100,000 marine mammals have been killed by plastic bags… marine biologists say their effect is minimal.’

It seems the bags are not killers, and nor are they immortal. ‘Bags are unlikely to survive longer than 10-20 years. Biodegradable bags take months. More research is needed’, said scientists (2). Greenpeace’s marine biologist, David Santillo, said: ‘It is very unlikely that many animals are killed by plastic bags. The evidence shows just the opposite.’ (3) The claim that carrier bags are killing thousands of animals a year seems to have emerged from a 1987 report titled Incidental Catch of Marine Birds and Mammals in Fishing Nets off Newfoundland, Canada. It was an easy mistake for eager environmentalists looking for a convenient truth to misread ‘fishing nets’ for ‘plastic bags’, and to spread this green counterknowledge into everyday life. The British government is now seriously considering banning plastic bags. The Chinese government has already done it in some cities.

For trend-setting eco-souls in the West, the very height of self-regard is to look down at those Asian arrivistes in consumerist-Communist China in horror. As one writer put it: ‘The hope that fuels the pursuit of endless economic growth – that billions of customers in India and China will one day enjoy the lifestyles of Europeans and Americans – is an absurd and dangerous fantasy.’ (4)

Western narcissistic fears of pollution and killer plastics may be more fantasy than fact, but there is no doubting the reality of the effect it is having in the East. Plastic bags may not kill seals, but banning them is putting people on the scrap heap. China’s largest plastics factory closed after China announced that it was banning production of super-thin bags from June this year (5). In January, 20,000 people lost their jobs when Suiping Huaqiang Plastic closed its doors (6). The Chinese government has taken British prime minister Gordon Brown’s identification of the plastic bag as ‘one of the most visible symbols of environmental waste’ to a higher level than even his support of the Daily Mail campaign to have them banned (7). The Chinese are now campaigning ‘against “white pollution” – the term used to describe the visual eyesores caused by Styrofoam trays and carrier bags, which snag on trees and get blown far and wide by the wind’ (8). Expect more job losses as the Chinese economy is made to respond to the aesthetic niceties of Western environmentalists, politicians and media pundits.

The Chinese government is denying its people free bags as a cheap way of keeping the West happy. In Beijing, according to one report, ‘a foreigner-friendly chain called Jenny Lou’s has introduced a charge on plastic bags, to the delight of Western Europeans and to the bafflement and occasional irritation of the many Russian and Chinese customers’ (9).

For many Chinese consumers, it is only in recent years that they have had the luxury of being able to throw things away. China has lifted 300million people from poverty in the past 30 years: without economic growth, many of them would be making a living as rag-pickers, scavenging plastic and metal out of landfill. It seems that many in the West think it would be better if they were doing that: on the environmentalist discussion website, contributors have been remarkably cavalier about carrier bag-related job losses in China. ‘Sad for the workers but great for the rest of the 6.6 billion people that live on this earth’, says one. ‘You could give those 10,000 people jobs picking up all of the plastic bag litter that was produced while they were in business. More jobs, less litter’, says another (10).

Factories closed in Bangladesh when plastic bags were banned in 2002. Maybe Bangladeshis could come to Britain to clear up the mess they have made? Taiwan has banned plastic cutlery as well as bags. As a result, ‘the local plastics industry, which has been producing 20 billion bags a year, says it expects to see 50,000 jobs lost’ (11). As a result of the hysterical war on the plastic bag, there have been serious impacts across the Asian plastics industry: in Vietnam, Nepal, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. All of these countries employ many low-skilled workers in the plastics sectors.

Western pressure on China to open up and liberalise has had some ironic and unexpected effects. The closest thing the West has to a credo worth exporting these days is environmentalism. It is a rod that Western governments use to smash China, the Great Polluter. It is the one area in which the West can lay claim to some real moral authority: the smug satisfaction of not producing enough to do any serious environmental damage anymore.

So it should be no surprise that it is in the area of the environment that China feels a need to react. This will not lead to more freedoms for the Chinese people. As well as losing recently created jobs, they can expect the same bans and restrictions that we in the West now labour under in the name of protecting the environment. Allowing the red of Stalinist authoritarianism to be repackaged as the green of austerity economics may make the growth sceptics and environmentalists at home feel good, but it is rubbish for those of us in the West and the East who still believe in progress.

Angus Kennedy is a member of the organising committee of the Battle of Ideas.

(1) The bag lady: Rebecca Hosking, Observer, 27 January 2008

(2) Trying to get a handle on the truth, The Times (London), 8 March 2008

(3) Series of blunders turned the plastic bag into global villain, The Times (London), 8 March 2008

(4) The western view of the rise of India and China is a self-affirming fiction, Guardian, 10 June 2006

(5) China announces plastic bag plan, BBC News, 9 January 2008

(6) China’s biggest plastic bag maker closes after ban, Guardian, 27 February 2008

(7) Why Sarah and I know this is right: Prime Minister Gordon Brown backs the Daily Mail’s Banish the Bags campaign, Daily Mail, 29 February 2008

(8) China’s biggest plastic bag maker closes after ban, Guardian, 27 February 2008

(9) China’s billions of shoppers face ban on plastic bags, Independent, 10 January 2008

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Topics Science & Tech


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