Making Recycling Their Bag: China’s War on Plastic Bags, By Mary O’Loughlin, 2009-2010, China

January 26, 2011

On September 2, 2009, I arrived in Wuhan, China to begin my Fulbright research on Chinese environmental public policy.  Arguably the biggest city in the world that few have ever heard of, Wuhan is a 10-million person metropolis located in central China on the Yangtze River.  As the only city occupying both banks of China’s longest river, its location on the Yangtze has long ensured its importance as a production and transit point connecting the eastern and western portions of the country. In recent decades, Wuhan has become particularly well-known as a steel and manufacturing center as well as an educational hub.

While in Wuhan, I studied China’s environmental policy through the lens of its policy on plastic bags.  The inspiration for this seemingly obscure research topic was that on June 1, 2008, the Chinese government introduced a nationwide ban on the free distribution of plastic bags in retail outlets.  According to this ban, any Chinese store that wanted to offer its customers a plastic bag would have to charge them for it.  This policy’s introduction represented an important effort to reduce plastic waste in China and a means to promote environmental awareness.  A “price tag” was literally going to be associated with material consumption involving plastic bags.  My Fulbright research sought to evaluate the implementation, enforcement, and effects of this policy.

Thanks to the Fulbright Program, I had the opportunity to explore China’s application of this new environmental regulation firsthand.  My research involved interviewing local shopkeepers and customers about their initial reactions to the bag policy, meeting with Chinese environmental experts (and discussing plastic bag usage in China with them), and collecting quantitative data and observational research about Chinese plastic bag consumption.  By having a unique opportunity to be on the ground and “in-country,” I was able to witness firsthand how the government implemented its policy and the population’s response.  Through my study, I have come to better understand and appreciate the practical implementation and enforcement limits associated with even the most well-intentioned Chinese environmental law.

In addition to my research, I met an amazing variety of people from all walks of Chinese life in Wuhan.  I attended classes on U.S.-Sino relations taught by Chinese professors from a completely Chinese perspective.  I engaged in discussions with Chinese classmates and friends about the differences between our two countries’ political and economic systems, what those differences will mean for our countries’ respective futures, and shared projections of our nations’ future relations.  I gave informal talks to local Chinese students on a variety of topics ranging from my plastic bag research, to applying to college in the U.S., to general reflections on life in America.  Through these regular exchanges, I came to better understand China’s people, history, and language.  These exchanges gave me a chance to share a little bit about my own country and culture, and to develop meaningful cross-cultural friendships.


I completed my Fulbright grant on July 2, 2010.  However, my study of China’s environmental public policy has only just begun.  Upon returning to the U.S., I spent the rest of my summer collating research and writing an article summarizing my findings. **

Now, living and working in Washington DC, I plan to continue to apply what I learned about China’s plastic bag policy by promoting awareness about the risks that plastic bag overconsumption poses to environmental stability, as well as by promoting the use of alternative bag and packaging materials.  Although I am no longer living on Chinese soil, I intend to maintain my connection to China not only through my work, but by engaging with DC’s Chinese community.

Though my Fulbright grant has come to an end, my research and interest in it – has only just begun.  I am extremely grateful to the Fulbright Program for giving me the chance to embark on a lifelong path of discovery about Chinese culture.  And, for anyone reading this who is considering applying for a Fulbright to China (or any other country), my advice would be: stop considering it and just do it!  You will not be disappointed.  It is truly the chance of a lifetime.

3 Pieces of Advice for Fulbright U.S. Student Program Applicants:

1) Start your application EARLY! 
Whether you’re applying for a study/research grant or a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship (although Fulbright English Teaching Assistantships are currently unavailable in China), the process takes at least a few months.   If you’re applying for a study/research grant, you will need to: complete your proposal and personal statement, request and receive references and transcripts, find an in-country sponsor, take a language exam (for those countries which require them), and complete all application materials.  I started talking with professors and Chinese contacts in March 2009 and began my written proposal in June 2009 – in spite of the fact that my application wasn’t officially due until September 2009 – and I am very glad I did.

2) Talk to as many people about your proposal as possible!
As you begin to consider proposal topics, talk to your professors, friends, parents, and colleagues about possible topics and ideas.  Ask them what they would study if they could choose one topic on which to focus in your target country.  You never know where a good idea will come from – or how it will evolve when you put your mind to it and conduct some research…

3) Don’t forget to use all available resources!
Even if you have already graduated, seek out your institution’s Fulbright Program Adviser to help you through the application process.  He or she has probably been through this process many times before and will be able to help guide you through it.  Also, contact past Fulbright fellows who have graduated from your school, even if you don’t know them.  They are very valuable resources and will be able to offer you fresh, relevant advice pertinent to your background and regional focus.  Likewise, consider contacting Fulbright Alumni Ambassadors and recent Fulbrighters from other schools who have just completed research in your area of focus.  Finally, in terms of online resources beyond those available on the Fulbright U.S. Student Program website, consider utilizing online alerts and RSS feeds to follow developments in your potential field and area of research to keep abreast of relevant news.  I found it especially useful to “Google Alert” key words (such as “plastic bag ban, China”) to keep on top of developments in my area of interest.  Through the use of online resources, I was able to save time on researching while still remaining well-informed.

**For anyone particularly curious about plastic bag use in China, you are welcome to view the abstract and complete text of my article on my SSRN page at: http://ssrn.com/author=1557094; contact information: Mary O’Loughlin, mboloughlin@gmail.com.

Photo: Mary O’Loughlin, 2009-2010, China (second from left), with two fellow Fulbright U.S. Student Program grantees (Allison Waid, left, Bo Peng, right) and the U.S. Ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman (center), at the U.S. Consulate in Wuhan in spring 2010.

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