Time to bin umbrella bags and end plastic pollution

Zac Lowell
Given the perilous state of the world's environment, the continued use of plastic umbrella bags in Shanghai is, at best, an imprudent anachronism that needs to be phased out.
Zac Lowell

Shanghai was hit by some wild weather over the weekend. The wet and windy conditions were a refreshing break from the scorching heat we’ve experienced recently. But the rain had one less-welcome, albeit an entirely predictable, consequence: the ubiquitous and wasteful use of one-off plastic umbrella bags.

Such bags will be familiar to those who have visited a shopping center or office tower in Shanghai when it’s raining. Some restaurants, hotels and housing compounds also distribute them. These bags are typically handed out at building entrances by zealous janitors or security guards to anyone carrying a damp umbrella, on the grounds that they keep floors dry and prevent slips.

I’ve always found these bags to be a nuisance and a waste. I try to avoid using them, but many bag distributors take their duties extremely seriously and will not suffer the passage an unsheathed umbrella. It’s often the case that I’m forced to use an umbrella bag, and on occasions when I slip past it’s rarely without someone angry shouting in my direction. Of course I’m a minority in this respect, as many others submitting willingly to this wasteful practice.

The fact that these bags represent a dreadful squandering of plastic should be obvious. As is readily apparent, they generate an enormous amount of refuse. In almost all cases, after a single use these sacks are chucked into trash bins or carelessly on to the street (where, ironically, they create a slipping hazard).

Like much of the world’s discarded plastic, the majority of these bags will surely make their way into landfills or be incinerated — or worse yet, they’ll add to the toxic detritus that’s already clogging the world’s oceans. Of course, one should not forget the energy and materials that go into producing and marketing these sacks in the first place.

The lifecycles of these bags are also extremely short. In my own office building, I’ve seen people stuff their umbrella into a bag in the lobby, only to ditch the bag moments later as they open their umbrella to let it dry. Shoppers, for their part, may be given a fresh bag at every mall, large store or restaurant they enter. While it’s difficult to say how many plastic umbrella bags are used and tossed annually in Shanghai, a report from Hong Kong found that 14 million such bags were used there last year between June and September alone. With such bags being used in many other Chinese cities, the scale of plastic pollution from this single use becomes enormous.

I’ve seen plastic umbrella bags used consistently since my arrival in China more than ten years ago, and no doubt their use has a much longer history.

Surely the practice dates to a time when environmental awareness was much lower. People in China are now generally more conscious of the environment than in years past, while the world is also waking up to the ecological dangers posed particularly by plastic. In recent months, the United Nations has issued a series of dire warnings about plastic waste, which is filling the world’s oceans, devastating species and contaminating drinking water and soil.

Monumental waste

China is in a unique position in the plastic waste economy, as historically it has imported millions of tons of waste annually from developed countries like the US and Germany, while also producing tens of millions of plastic waste locally. Last year though, it imposed a ban on the importation of plastics’ waste as a commodity, in an apparent nod to the environmental dangers of this practice.

Many countries and cities have wisely banned single-use plastics, such as drinking straws and shopping bags.

Given that just a fraction of the world’s plastic waste is recycled, conservation efforts must also include policies that limit consumption. Shanghai should consider consumption limits as well, and plastic umbrella bags are a prime candidate for curtailment. Not only are they a monumental waste, but replacement strategies are easily within reach. Umbrella holders, absorbent mats, non-slip flooring materials and simple mopping can all help eliminate the need for bags. In fact, merely giving one’s umbrella a good shake before stepping indoors does wonders for removing water.

Given the perilous state of the world’s environment, the continued use of plastic umbrella bags in Shanghai is, at best, an imprudent anachronism that needs to be phased out. With minimal effort, I believe Shanghai can learn to live without such bags, particularly as residents and authorities become more concerned about protecting the environment.

The author is a copy editor at Shanghai Daily.

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