China makes most of our plastic carriers - it also recycles them when we toss them away. Crazy? It's become a fashionable thing to worry about - and there's a new It bag to prove it. Jonathan Watts in Mai and Jess Cartner-Morley in London report Jonathan Watts and Jess Cartner-Morley Saturday March 31, 2007 The Guardian Migrant workers sort waste for recycling in China Migrant workers sort waste for recycling in China. Photograph: Dapei Xin/EPA Five thousand miles from the nearest UK high street, a blue and white Tesco carrier bag flutters like a flag in the breeze. It is snagged on a twig above a Chinese stream that's choked with rubbish from around the world. Argos and Wal-Mart logos are visible in the fetid water and along banks that are strewn with plastic bags. There is even a green and white Help The Aged carrier with a UK website address on it. Article continues Here in Mai, a village in Guangdong Province, southern China, a community of recyclers ekes out a living from items considered so worthless in the west that they are given away free and quickly discarded. Carrier bags and bottles are shipped here from London, Rotterdam, Hong Kong and cities within China for chopping, melting and remoulding into pellets. Like many jobs outsourced to China, it's dirty, smelly, labour-intensive and poorly paid. There is so much rubbish to be recycled that parts of the village look like a dump. "The river is foul - we can smell it from our classrooms," says Wang Yanxia, a student at a local middle school. "When it rains, the water floods on to the path and the stench is everywhere." Villagers may not have heard of Tesco, but the British high street giant has an all too visible presence. One factory has even decorated its front gates with huge plastic banners advertising a Tesco mobile phone offer. If China is the end of the line for the plastic bag, it is also the beginning. Most of the carrier bags used in Britain are made in Chinese factories just a few hours' drive from Mai. From there, they travel halfway around the world, are dished out to British shoppers - and then at least some of them find their way back. The 10,000-mile odyssey between manufacturing and dumping is the story of our age, part economic miracle, part environmental tragedy. In the space of just 20 years, the fishing village of Shenzhen, in the south of China close to Hong Kong, has become an industrial powerhouse with a population of more than eight million and a container port that handles more cargo than anywhere in the world other than Hong Kong, Singapore and Shanghai. This is where most of the planet's toys and shoes are made, where Apple outsources much of the production of its iPods, where Wal-Mart fills its shelves. And, naturally, it is also the place that makes billions of the plastic bags that briefly contain all these consumer goods. Shenzhen Delux Arts Plastics is a typical manufacturer, paying its workers about £60 a month to churn out 25,000 plastic carriers every day, a fifth of which go to Europe, some to Next in the UK. It is a simple, three-part process. Bags full of plastic pellets are fed into an induction pipe, melted together at a temperature of 180C and then stretched and wound on to rolls the width of the desired bag. Next, the rolls are fed through a series of cylinder printing presses, each adding a different colour, until the logo and lettering are complete. Finally, an army of workers on the second floor carries out the more labour-intensive process of melting handles on to the bags, checking quality and packing. From start to finish, it takes just five minutes to make a bag. The production cost for each bag is less than four pence, most of which goes on machinery maintenance, management and materials. The primary ingredient is polyfabric polypropylene or other types of plastic, all of them petroleum based and imported directly from Saudi Arabia or from refineries in Singapore and Japan. The industry has a significant carbon footprint. By one estimate, the US alone requires 12 million barrels of oil for the 100 billion bags its consumers use annually. For factory manager Andy Lue, the main concern is that the cost of plastic is rising along with the surge in oil prices. "Our customers would complain if we tried to pass on the extra cost of the materials," he says. The factory's main competitive advantage is labour, which accounts for less than a 10th of the production costs of a plastic bag. Wages in Shenzhen are low, and more than three-quarters of the population are migrants, many of them living in huge company dormitories far from their homes and families, and working in dirty, dangerous conditions. Over at the Delux Arts Plastics factory, pay and working conditions are above average for Shenzhen. The manager will not permit us to talk to employees, but we are introduced to "group leader" Chen Ping, a migrant from Guangxi Province, who tells us that the situation has improved enormously since she started working and living in the factory 11 years ago. "The managers realise they must let us eat and sleep better if they want us to work harder." Chen earns more than double the average factory salary, but her life is far from easy. Because she is a migrant, her two children will have to return to their home town to go to school, which means she will see them for only a few days each year, at spring festival. But she expresses no sense of grievance, even though the consumers who use her Next bags can easily pay more for a single shirt than she earns in a month. "I don't think it is unfair. We make these bags to be used. They have their own value." In Britain, plastic bags have long been a cause of irritation, partly due to their visibility. In gutters and branches, the useless, ugly flutter of discarded, brightly coloured plastic taunts us with human fecklessness. They pose problems for wildlife, they block drains. And 17 billion plastic bags a year are handed out to British shoppers. What has made them, suddenly, a very hot issue is the launch of another kind of bag - an item that has already become the status bag of 2007. This is not the reissued Chanel quilt-and-chain classic, the 2.55. It is not even the YSL Downtown, with its modish zips and snap fastenings. And - here's the thing - it costs £5. There is nothing inherently remarkable about Anya Hindmarch's I'm Not A Plastic Bag. It is a simple, rope-handled, sturdy cotton shopping bag, albeit one that's rather beautifully designed, as you would expect from the British Accessory Designer of the Year. What is significant, however, is the reaction to it at every stage, from the sketchbook to the checkout. There have already been queues at the Mayfair store Dover Street Market, when a few preview bags went on sale. At around the same time, the British Retail Consortium has announced a voluntary initiative to reduce the environmental impact of carrier bags by 25% by the end of next year, through the use of alternative materials to make lighter-weight bags, by encouraging reuse, offering and promoting "bags for life", always asking customers whether they require a bag at all and providing bag recycling points. In other words: reduce, reuse, recycle. Friends of the Earth are quick to point out that, in the context of the scale of the environmental issues with which we are faced, plastic bags, which account for only 0.3% of the domestic waste stream, are not their top priority. Even so, the average person in the UK accepts, on average, five plastic bags a week. The decision as to whether to take a bag is almost a daily one. The supermarket checkout has become, therefore, a frontline of the battle for the environment, even more so because, unlike recycling or composting of domestic waste, it is a decision we take in public, and so reflects not only personal beliefs but what we see to be public norms. It is for this reason that Decline Plastic Bags Wherever Possible is the first action suggested in the book Change The World For A Fiver. "Declining plastic bags is totemic of lots of things," says Eugenie Harvey, co-founder of the global social-change movement We Are What We Do, which produced the book. "It's the most visible aspect of a whole set of behaviour around shopping: do you buy environmentally friendly washing powder; do you buy locally produced food?" Trevor Datson, spokesman for Tesco, calls the "Do you need a bag?" moment at the checkout "a constant conversation between us and the customer. I was in the Sandhurst store yesterday and my colleague on the checkout remarked to me how many more people remember to bring in their own bags these days." Hindmarch's bag may help. She has a knack for reading the zeitgeist, as illustrated by the phenomenal success of her Be A Bag range, whereby family photos could be made into smart handbags, a concept that in the six years since it was launched has been copied all over the world. The low price of the I'm Not A Plastic Bag - a fiver - was absolutely essential to the project, Hindmarch says. "And so was the point of sale, which had to be the supermarket checkout." Hindmarch is, however, a businesswoman, and as such knew that too many £5 Anya Hindmarch bags on the market would damage her upmarket brand. (To put the price in perspective, the Elrod, one of the key Anya Hindmarch leather handbag styles for this summer, sells for around £500.) Production therefore had to be limited, and so the bag had to be made in China if the figures were going to add up. "That was not ideal, of course," Hindmarch concedes, "but we have been careful about carbon-offsetting the project. Our aim was for the project to break even. None of the retailers involved in the project is making any money from it." A limited number of bags are currently on sale via Hindmarch's website, and from April 11, the remaining 20,000 bags will go on sale in Sainsbury's. The purpose of the Hindmarch bag is, says the designer, "to cast a spotlight on the issue. Just to plant an idea in people's heads that will make them think before automatically reaching for a bag." Finding a complete solution to the plastic bag problem is extremely complicated. All the supermarkets profess commitment to the issue, but all have different policies. Tesco produces all-degradable bags and operates a clubcard scheme to reward people for reusing bags, on the principle that "incentive is better than coercion, because if people do something resentfully, they are not making such a deep-seated change". Waitrose emphasises the "bag for life" scheme, which they were the first retailer to introduce 10 years ago. The Co-op's bags are degradable; Sainsbury's are made of one-third recycled material. The opening of the country's first organic supermarket, Whole Foods Market in Kensington, in June, may further accelerate the process of change - the store, like its Fresh & Wild predecessors, will refund customers 5p for not taking a bag. Friends of the Earth, however, would like to see a government tax on all plastic bags. Degradable and biodegradable bags are "not an environmentally friendly option", they say, and "will lead to the public becoming increasingly confused as to what they are supposed to do with them. Degradable plastic bags usually can't be recycled with normal plastic bags, and people may think they can put degradable bags into their compost bins, which they can't." Degradable bags are still made from plastic, so placing demands on oil resources. They contain a metal additive to make them degrade and tend to require sunlight to break down. If biodegradable bags end up in landfill, they will eventually produce methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Paper bags are no better, say Friends of the Earth, because they have less capacity for being reused, and require more energy and resources in manufacture and transport than plastic alternatives. Bags made from recycled plastics, which are then reused or recycled, are considered by many a better option, but recycling points for bags are as yet not widely accessible. In any case, all too often, a promise by municipal government to recycle simply means sending the rubbish to China. In trade terms, it makes an odd kind of sense. Historically, British merchants have always found it easy to fill their ships with goods on the route from China, but all too often they have been stuck with empty cargo holds in the opposite direction. This trade gap is the main reason why English gunboats forced opium on China in the 19th century. Today, however, the answer is not drugs, but garbage. China exports almost £12.6 billion-worth of manufactured goods and other products to the UK each year. In return, the UK sends back 1.9 million tonnes of rubbish, for the simple reason that it's cheaper than dumping it at a UK landfill site. Because the ships are almost empty on their way back to China, the cargo costs are tiny - it's cheaper to send a container of waste from London to Shenzhen than it is to truck it to Manchester. Under EU law, waste cannot be dumped abroad, but shipments for recycling are permitted. This means business for Guangdong Province, which is scattered with Steptoe and Son communities. There are the e-waste centres of Guiyu and Qingyuan, where families make a living from chopping up and melting down toxic plastics and metals from discarded computers, printers and mobile phones. Below them on the waste chain are the recyclers of plastic bags and bottles in Shunde and Heshan. Until recently, the most notorious of these was in Nanhai, a town just outside Guangzhou, where the streets were once piled high with rubbish and the streams thick with trash and pollution. Last month, however, after a series of embarrassing reports in the British media, the government was shamed into shutting down the entire area and banning imports of foreign garbage. Today, the streets of Nanhai are swept clean and the small recycling sheds are shuttered up. For many locals, however, this sudden concern about the environment is a financial disaster. "We were ordered to close last month because some foreign rubbish contained toxins," says Ding Chunming, who used to process bottles and bags. "It's a terrible blow because we only started this business last year. We get no compensation. All we can do is wait and hope the government allows us to restart business." But the industry has learned how to bypass laws and regulations. Many Nanhai refugees simply moved their scrapheaps to a new location. Two hours' drive away, we found a new recycling centre under construction in Shijing village. The concrete is still wet on the floor and many of the sheds are only half complete, but the task of buying, selling and sorting rubbish is already in full flow. The operation is remarkably specialised. There are sections just for discarded hotel welcome mats, the bases of revolving chairs, black buckets and the lids of shampoo bottles. A local businesswoman, who gave her name only as Ms Liang, was terrified that another critical news report would force her to relocate again. "We have only just got here from Nanhai," she says. "I have never dealt with foreign waste. I can't do it now and I won't do it in the future." But for others the trade in foreign waste is too lucrative to disappear quickly. We were approached by a scrap dealer who asked if we had any rubbish to sell. He was after PVC, but he put us in touch with a factory in Shenzhen that said it could deal with carrier bags despite the ban. "It can be done as long as the plastic is well enough packaged to get through customs," says the owner. "You should ship them to Hong Kong and we will deal with them from there. If the bags are sorted by colour, we can pay you as much as $100 a tonne." Farther away from the media spotlight and the scrutiny of environment officials, many factories are still reprocessing British carrier bags and other rubbish despite the government's ban. Another hour's drive away is Shunde, where European trash is baled up on the roadside. Much of it is from the UK - Tesco milk cartons, Walkers crisp packets, Snickers wrappers and empty packets of Bisto gravy and Persil powder - but there are also bales containing the packaging for Dutch confectionery and Italian nappies. The village of Mai is close by. Running through the community is a street of recycling firms, outside each of which stands a blackboard detailing the type, colour and quality of the plastic they deal in. Some are no bigger than a shed in which migrant workers sift by hand through hundreds of thousands of tiny plastic pellets, picking out discoloured flecks and bits of fluff. Mai Weibo buys semi-processed bags for 9,000 yuan a tonne (around £600) and, after painstakingly cleaning up the contents, sells the plastic on for 10,500 yuan - "We don't make much of a profit." The recycled plastic is not of sufficiently high quality to be used a second time for UK bags, so instead much of it is turned into red, white and blue plastic sheets, which are used for building site coverings and holdalls. Many locals believe the pollution is ruining their health. A local doctor says the village suffers from an unusually high incidence of respiratory diseases. "Perhaps it was the pollution or perhaps it was because everyone smokes cigarettes," he says. "This is a sensitive topic. Of course we want a garden-like environment, but people here have to make a living." Others say they have other priorities. "I don't care about the environment," says one migrant labourer. "I only want to make money. If your stomach isn't full, how can you worry about health?" Everyone condemns as an eyesore the ditches full of carrier bags, but nobody seems to take responsibility for clearing up the mess. In fact, the main concern of local businessmen and government officials is to avoid scrutiny. "The government has banned imported waste because of the media attention," says one local factory manager, whose warehouse includes giant baskets full of rubbish from the UK. "The Nanhai recycling business has been shut down. This area doesn't want to suffer the same fate because it would hurt the government's income." Britain's stance is also equivocal: dumping waste overseas is forbidden, but sending it to another country for recycling is acceptable. When told of the foul conditions at Mai, an official at the UK consulate in Guangzhou says that individual companies have to take action. "It is the responsibility of producers to make sure that waste is dealt with properly at all stages of the chain." Foreign governments have started to take action specifically on plastic carriers, some going much further than Britain's retailers and their aim for a voluntary 25% reduction in bag use by 2008. Ireland, for example, introduced a 15p "plastax" on carrier bags way back in 2002, which has subsequently led to a 90% reduction in use. Australia has launched a "Say No To Carrier Bags" campaign. In Taiwan and Hong Kong, the government has obliged supermarkets to charge for bags at least two days a week. Italy is promoting the use of biodegradable bags. In France, reusable plastic bags - which are heavier, easier to recycle and less likely to blow away - now account for more than half of the ¤770m market. Inevitably, however, even those eco-bags are made in Shenzhen. The main producer is the Richall Group, which must be one of the world's fastest-growing companies. Launched in 2003 with starting capital of just £1,000, last year it recorded sales of more than £3m, and this year that figure is expected to triple, thanks to business from Sainsbury's, Unilever, Disney, Budweiser and Nestlé, all of whom are looking towards reusable bags. Richall's president, Liu Tianyan, says attitudes are changing but, more importantly, so are materials. "We're never going to get rid of plastic bags completely, because in some cases, such as food wrappings, there is no good substitute. But in the case of shopping bags, I believe the flimsy plastic can be completely replaced." Not everyone thinks that would be a good thing. Peter Woodall, communications manager for the Carrier Bag Consortium, says, "It's important to forget the emotion and look at the science. We are not filling our landfill with plastic bags. That is simply a myth. When real science is taken into account, the best environmental choice is plastic. Life-cycle analysis shows that if you use a conventional bag four times and then recycle it, that is better than using a 'bag for life'." Environmental campaigners, meanwhile, believe the only solution is to make rich countries deal with their waste locally. "That's the only way to make the whole community feel the impact," says Kevin May at Greenpeace's office in Beijing. "If you can easily dump waste overseas, then there is no motive for having a waste-reduction programme at home. The argument that developing nations need recycled resources from wealthy nations is only partly true. The environmental costs are too high. Just look at the filthy water and polluted air of China. If we can stop the waste trade, I am sure it will lead to more sustainable development around the world." The apparent intractability of the plastic bag problem is all the more remarkable considering that our dependency on them is a recent phenomenon. Polythene was not even invented until the 30s, and plastic bags did not become common in supermarkets until the 70s. The idea that we can't live without them is a very modern one.