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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

China may lag behind developed nations in tackling air and water pollution, but it's just taken the lead in one area - banning free plastic bags. In the near future, Chinese shoppers will either have to buy them or bring their own. It's expected to save China millions of barrels of oil each year, as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Beijing.

ANTHONY KUHN: The rules announced Tuesday will take effect in June, just a couple of months ahead of this year's Beijing Olympics. The rules ban the manufacture of thin, flimsy plastic bags. Stores can use thicker ones, but they have to charge customers for them.

Shoppers laden with bright orange plastic bags are coming out of a supermarket near the Forbidden City. Most of them say they're ready for the new policy. But real estate developer Li Yu Ying(ph) sounded a cautious note.

Ms. LI YU YING (Real Estate Developer): (Through translator) I support this policy but I was a little surprised at it just because to be frank it may be hard to implement in China. There are too many people here without a strong environmental awareness.

KUHN: China's government says that the country uses up to three billion plastic bags a day. They can often be seen flapping in trees or floating in lakes, a pervasive sign of China's devastated environment.

Wu Deng Ming is founder of the Green Volunteer League of Chongqing in southwest China.

Mr. WU DENG MING (Founder, Green Volunteer League of Chongqing): (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: This policy is significant, he says, because through these little bags, it will change our lifestyles and consumption habits and take us back to our original, more environmentally, friendly way of shopping.

Wu said that folks are likely to go back to putting their groceries in cloth or string bags or straw baskets the way they used to do as recently as a decade and a half ago before supermarkets and plastic bags started becoming common in China. It's still that way in some small towns in rural areas. This week, another country followed China's lead. Australia said it wants to start phasing the bags out by year's end.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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