Early returns on China's single-use plastics ban show big changes, big challenges
As China's ban on single-use plastics rolls out across the country, it's leading to noticeable changes, like milk tea shops switching to paper straws and some McDonald's and KFC establishments swapping out plastic cutlery for wooden knives and forks. But the Jan. 1 ban also faces challenges.
Industry executives are pointing to uneven enforcement, sizable price spikes and shortages of the biodegradable polylactic acid, which is often seen as a replacement for traditional plastics.
As the ban has rolled out across the world's second-largest economy, larger corporations and bigger cities are proving quickest to adapt and are most compliant, switching their bags and packaging to PLA or paper.
But many wet markets and street vendors are largely still using disposable plastics, and in smaller cities, the ban has not been rolled out on any wide scale.
Ben Ho, the head of the China Thermoforming Association, says that the government regulation of single-use plastic is running into a roadblock: a shortage of PLA.
"The big problem is the supply of such 100 percent biodegradable material is only 1-2 percent of the demand," he said. "This disaster will go on the whole year. The prices are really high and the material supply is not enough."
Ho said there is only half a million metric tons of PLA produced annually worldwide, but China needs 2 million tonnes just for its food delivery industry.
As a result, the price of PLA has nearly doubled, from $4,300 (28,000 RMB) to $7,400 (48,000 RMB) per tonne, leading to two problems.
There is not enough PLA to sustain the booming market and businesses are buying up "biodegradable" plastic bags and straws that are not actually biodegradable, he said.
Without enough supply, he said, there cannot be adequate enforcement among the independent and informal businesses who are not adhering to the new rules.