Why Asians Use Lots Of Plastic Bags

“Here’s your change and receipt,” said the Woolies cashier.

I pocketed the slips of paper and stood still. She pushed the two boxes of Shapes biscuits and one packet of Freddo Frogs on the counter towards me. I waited. Where’s a plastic bag to carry my things in?

Paper bags seemingly aren't that popular in Asia. Plastic bags still are | Weekly Photo Challenge: Object. Photo: Mabel Kwong

Paper bags seemingly aren’t that popular in Asia. Plastic bags still are | Weekly Photo Challenge: Object. Photo: Mabel Kwong

That was what happened on one of my first Melbourne shopping trips when I moved back here. After a decade living in Singapore and Malaysia, I was so used to cashiers automatically plonking my groceries in plastic bags without me asking – I thought the same applied Down Under.

An estimated 3 billion plastic bags are used each day by China’s 1.3 billion people. Singapore’s 5 million population uses roughly the same amount annually. Australia’s 22.6 million people use an approximate 3.9 billion such bags in one year.

Just why do Asians use so many plastic bags?

The plastic tartan plaid bag or the “Chinese laundry bag” has been used widely in China for centuries. Made out of strong woven plastic material, these bags were, and up until today, used to lug around pretty much anything and everything. Chinese travelers use these checkered bags to carry luggage. Chinese moms use it to carry vegetables. Chinese families use it to stow away stuff at home. Arguably, many Asians are accustomed to using plastic bags and when you’re used to doing something a certain way, it’s hard to break the habit.

Maybe it’s because Asians feel the need to use many plastic bags. Countless of times while lining up to pay for my groceries in Singapore and Malaysia, I’ve heard Asian customers in front of me request extra plastic bags from the cashiers, fearing that if the bag holding their groceries embarrassingly breaks, they have back-up bags. Perhaps Asians collect plastic bags for spares around the house. My mum does this. As an anal Asian parent she loves helping herself to plastic bags at self-checkout counters and brings them home for the sole purpose of wrapping shoes and toys to keep them clean.

Then there’s also the fact that many shops in Asia tend to willingly give away plastic bags for free. Many Asians love to save and go absolutely ga-ga over freebies. Why pay for a reusable bag when a free plastic one functions just the same?

Using plastic bags while shopping in wet markets in Asia is in a sense more hygienic than using reusable cloth bags. Wet market floors are usually very wet with stinky water leaking from buckets of water rinsing poultry and plates from adjacent coffee shops. Accidentally brush a reusable green bag on the slippery floor and it’ll become damp and stained, teeming with bacteria and this may go unnoticed until we wash it.

Paper bag use has been catching on in Asia’s fast-food industry of late. I’ve noticed Mcdonalds staff in Singapore are fond of putting takeaway burger and fries into a paper bag….and then put this bag inside a plastic bag with handles. A bag within a bag. This seems very silly to me, a waste of resources. Maybe some of us find carryall bags more convenient to lug around.

It is worth noting that various parts of Asia (e.g. Malaysia kampungs) are still developing regions – there is scant education about recycling here as people here put making a bare living first. Unlike in Australia, there aren’t that many vocal “save the environment” groups campaigning for lesser plastic bag use and a sustainable society.

But in encouraging signs, the reducing plastic bag usage phenomenon is catching on in Asia. Hong Kong has introduced regulations banning retailers from giving out plastic bags for free. Malaysia’s popular departmental store Jaya Jusco has a “bring your own bag Saturday”, to which my mum grumbles about. I do too when after buying a pile of colourful clothes here on a Saturday, I realise I don’t have a bag with me to carry them home.

Maybe it’s the Asian in me, but I think there’ll always be a soft spot for plastic bags in my heart.

Do you use plastic bags or green recyclable/biodegradable bags?

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45 thoughts on “Why Asians Use Lots Of Plastic Bags

  1. I have to admit the Chinese Laundry Bags, also known as ‘Hui Xiang Dai’ in China, are really amazing and sturdy. They can pretty much hold anything! A lot of non-Chinese are using them nowadays, knowing they are reliable and also very cheap. People use them to store things when moving and I’ve even seen some sports people, when travelling overseas for a game, use them too 🙂

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    • Thanks for the Chinese name! But when I google it, nothing seems to come up? I’ve been meaning to find what the Chinese name is for “Chinese Laundry Bags”. I know, they can hold anything – put bricks in and…it will still hold! Those bags with flaps also close surprisingly well and things don’t fall out. I’ve seen travelers use lots of string to “tie up and hold” the bag and stuff together and drag it around 🙂

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      • Hmmm…maybe there’s a different name in Northern China. But as far as I know that’s what they call it in Southern China (well the Cantonese-speaking regions anyway). These bags are just glorious!

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        • I know. The good thing is that liquid can slide off the bags, so these bags will never stay damp for long. And rarely will they tear. Magic! Do you know how the pronunciation of the bag in Cantonese?

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          • Unfortunately the romanisation of Cantonese is far more complex than Mandarin. Pinyin is a lot easier but Cantonese, because of its nine different tones, contour tones and more complex phonology, I don’t know how to write the romanisation version of the bags 😦 I can only say it to you though

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  2. Speaking as a non-Asian I can confirm those big stripey bags are very handy; I have several of them myself for moving house & sorting stuff.

    As for regular plastic bags, I was really shocked by your statistics. I thought Australians were over-using plastic bags, but obviously it’s all relative. On a trip to Ghana a few years ago I was appalled by the pollution caused by plastic bags, which had almost completely replaced traditional wrappings and containers. They are very convenient and often more hygienic, but seeing the sea awash with black plastic was awful. Hopefully the biodegradable plastic bags will replace polythene and it won’t be such an issue.

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    • I hope the stripey bags you have last you a lifetime 🙂 I have yet to see one of these bags torn or with a hole in them.

      Some Asian countries have a bigger population than Australia, so naturally you would think Asians use more plastic bags. But if you mathematically work out the ratio to plastic bag use per head…Asians still come out on top for plastic bag use. I hear in Ghana these checkered bags are very popular too and they call it “Ghana-Must-Go-Bag”. But it doesn’t sound like you saw any there :/

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  3. Talking about plastic bags – it sure is the Asian thing and some went through the extreme to reuse it. There is this neighbor of mine who seems like she doesn’t buy any garbage bags and reuses those supermarket plastic bags for her rubbish disposal. Every rubbish day instead of a big black bag at her gate, she puts out like half a dozen white plastic bags. The garbage truck still collects them weekly so there is nothing wrong with what she is doing, obviously making good use of those supermarket plastic bags and saving a few cents per week.
    When I go supermarket shopping, I do not bother to bring my own biodegradable bags unless I go to warehouse which is doing away with plastic bags. I always keep a big green bag handy in my car. It would be nice if the major supermarkets here in NZ switch to paper bags like the Good Grocer in Applecross, Perth. I miss shopping at the Good Grocer, so environmental friendly.

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    • My family actually does the same as your neighbour. We don’t use the black garbage bags – my mum throws everything from paper to food scraps into those supermarket plastic bags. We live in an apartment though, so all these white plastic bags go down the rubbish chute. I do vaguely remember as a kid living in the suburbs in a house, we stuffed our “full of rubbish white bags” into big black garbage bags and put them outside for the garbage truck to collect 🙂

      Keeping a green bag handy in the car is always a good idea. I like paper bags as most of the time it’s fun to pack your groceries in it snugly – it’s like a puzzle! Paper bags look fragile but funnily enough they rarely tear easily – at least for me. If you miss Good Grocer that much, just hop on a plane over the Perth. And why not make a pit stop in my town while you’re in the country? 😉

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  4. So are the plastic bags for free at the grocery stores? I only know that at least in Scandinavia and central Europe those bags cost like 0.10-0.20€ (can be even higher sometimes) so mostly people bring their old plastic bags from home when going to the grocery store or bring some textile bags.

    I remember when I was very young those bags were still for free but they changed the policies regarding the bags due to the high pollution level resulting in it

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    • In Asia, a lot of shop-houses, “mama shops” or convenience stores run by “old aunties and uncles” still give plastic bags away for free. A lot of national, big name grocery retailers in Malaysia shoved plastic bags at me for free even when I just bought a packet of potato chips or biscuits – this was about over a year ago. It’s great to hear that they aren’t giving away these bags for free over in your part of the world. Always good to reuse and really, what are we to do with an overflowing cupboard of plastic bags? Nothing 🙂

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    • That’s good to hear and you’re definitely doing your bit for the environment. Reusing is always the way to go – in a way it teaches us not to be greedy but reflect on how we can make use of what we already have 🙂

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  5. Pingback: 2-6-14 Weekly Foto Challenge Object # 3 (Lagniappe) | The Quotidian Hudson

  6. Pingback: Weekly Photo Challenge – Object – Random Rope |

    • That’s good thinking on your part. Definitely don’t want to get any doggy do on your hands. Good on you for having a compost bin at home – a good way to treat the environment and make some fertiliser.

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  7. I use either one depending on how heavy my groceries are. In bigger cities in the States they’re starting to make you pay 10 cents for every plastic bag you use. I’m not sure about paper. But the thing about plastic bags here is that, in an effort to make them more environmentally friendly, they’re made very thinly and cheaply. Grocery store clerks here will put your items into ten different bags instead of trying to cram a lot into one — not because they’re trying to charge you more money, but because the bags are too thin to hold anything heavy.

    This is totally different from and something I noticed right away in both Hong Kong and Taiwan. Taiwan was the first place I had to ask for a bag, and in both places the bags were thick and durable, so you could put a lot of stuff into a single bag. Most people brought their own bags from home. I soon learned to do that, too.

    To be honest, Mabel, this was one of the biggest areas in which I experienced reverse culture shock when I came back to the States. I really couldn’t believe how wasteful so many people are here. I wish they’d start charging for bags everywhere to give people a wake-up call.

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    • Oh, yes. I sympathise with you. In Target here in Melbourne, we have to pay for biodegradable bags at the cashier if we need one. And they are made very thinly and cheaply like your bags in the States. It seems impossible to carry more than three glass cups in these bags without them puncturing in some way, leaving your purchases trailing behind you.

      Funny that you say bags in Taiwan are thick and durable. Most bags in Malaysia and Singapore are in fact thick and durable. I should have clarified (or mentioned more clearly) in my post that it is the convenience stores, “mama shops” or shop houses stores run by old “aunties and uncles” in Asia that still give out such bags freely today. But it’s definitely great to hear stores in Taiwan and Hong Kong are charging for bags and locals here are adapting to this.

      I don’t know if this is the case in the States, but in Australia’s grocery stores we have many, many self-checkout counters/machines. Of course there are plastic bags at these machines – unfortunately available for all customers to grab as much as they want for free 😦

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  8. I have so many recycled bags, but always forget to take them with me! So end up using plastic bags 😦 I’ve noticed that some shops here in Sydney are starting to charge for plastic bags now.

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    • Oh no! You’ll need to stash a recycled bag somewhere in your bag or car and leave it there 🙂 Here in Melbourne, Target and Officeworks do charge for plastic bags. But the other day I bought something from Officeworks, and the young guy behind the counter offered me the huge paper bag you see in this post’s photo for free :/

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  9. I don’t know about other countries but Taiwan had started the no-bag policy far sooner than Washington State in the US. And parts of the US still don’t have the BYOB (Bring Your Own Bag) policy. However, I agree with you that fast food chains have a strange policy of putting food in paper bags then the paper bags in one big plastic one with handles – what’s the point? The worst is in bakeries in Taiwan. they put each baked item in a small plastic bag then all the small plastic bags in a bigger bag. This is to ensure your croissant won’t mix with your chocolate eclair, but it’s really a terrible practice. BTW, here’s a hilarious video about Chinese people and plastic bags — http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4B0WseyD5FU&list=PLWFasxvs1BwsdbFDxu5FLUCXJJNhAnunj&feature=share

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    • Great observation about the many plastic-bags-within-plastic-bags in bakeries. I forgot about that. Many bread and cake bakery franchises run by Asians here in Australia (we have something called ‘Breadtop’) do exactly this. You’re right; it’s as if they fear the chocolate eclair will rub off on and contaminate the pork floss roll if they are put together touching side by side. I think bakeries do this due to convinience: it is easy to hold and eat an oily croissant or bun with some form of packaging like a snug plastic bag around it, just like a burger. However, there is nothing wrong at all with being a bit primal and getting our hands dirty eating these buns – finger food – with our bare hands.

      HAHAHA! Thanks so much for sharing this video, it’s gold and very hilarious. Very true about plastic bags 🙂

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  10. It all boils down to the consciousness and environmental concern we have as a society. In developing societies the priority of going up in life is a struggle and there is not much energy left about anything else including the environment. I suppose all societies have to go through this phase.

    I suppose the sheer impact of Globalization and connectivity would drive the awareness and changes arising from that faster.

    Shakti

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    • Very true, Shakti – “life is a struggle” in developing societies. There is the pressure to meet basic survival needs – finding food, boiling clean water, putting a steady roof over heads. Using reusable bags would be the least of their concerns; to them, these bags cost quite a bit to get their hands on. (International) government campaigns to raise awareness about recycling plastic bags might be a good way to start promoting this cause to developing countries. Donating green bags to these countries might help spread the message too.

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  11. I always want plastic bags. Because I use them as garbage bags – one per day usually. It saves money on buying those larger garbage bags and having rubbish and rotting food smell in the kitchen for longer than necessary. Sadly bags these days are thinner and they often tear or develop a hole, making them useless.

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    • I am with you on this one. I also always want plastic bags for the same reason as you do. You’re right in that those garbage bags are much larger. They’re definitely meant for tall, green garbage wheelie bins that you see in people’s backyards, and maybe for large families living in big suburban houses. The garbage trucks come round once a day to take them away in the suburbs.

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  12. I’m guessing it’s the price. If I don’t need a plastic bag for something that I’ve purchased, I usually would tell the cashier/kopi-tiam uncle so. Plastic bags are handy for trash, as you have noted above. And also for storing dirty shoes in a luggage.
    A paper bag within a plastic bag. Aie!

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    • That is so true. Why spend money unnecessarily? Plastic bags don’t come cheap these days. I think those small freezer bags used to store sandwiches and meat in the fridge are the most expensive. It’s so common to see kopi-tiam aunties and uncles in Singapore putting your takeaway into plastic bags even when you intend to eat it at a hawker centre table nearby. Even sugarcane and soya bean takeaway drinks here come in plastic bags, tied a the top with string with a straw sticking out!

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      • Ziplock bags are very handy – I use them mostly for dry items though, so am able to re-use them 🙂 For the drinks, I think it depends on whether plastic bags are the lesser/greater of evils, in comparison with paper and plastic cups.

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  13. Hi Mabel,

    I came across to your post because I’m trying to understand Asian obsession with Single-Use Plastic items in general, is really sad seeing the beautiful beaches, waterways and landscapes of countries such Indonesia and Camboia totally polluted by plastics.

    The basic main problem about plastic items is that they NEVER disappear, so there is no discussion on whether we should or should not use them, we CAN’T give ourselves such a pleasures,
    Hundreds of species are threatend by ocean plastic pollution.

    In addition, I’m traveling in Indonesia and most of the islands here have no waste management systems, which lead into people burning off their trash and/or throwing it to the environment.

    Regarding this last comment, any idea on why asians just throw away things when they are done using them? Is it that is has always been like these, when everything was bio-degradable and organic?

    Did Asia ever saw glass reusable bottles? How were noodles packed before plastic? What about the individual coffee sackets?

    Any help from you will be highly appreciated, and more xonsidering your position as an Asian who lives in a country that seems to care a little bit about the plastic pollution problem.

    Thanks in advance! 🙂

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    • Very nice to hear you get to travel around Asia, but also sad to see you observe how polluted this part of the world is with unwanted plastic.

      It is a sharp observation there that many in Asia throw away something simply because they are done with it as opposed to recycling. In a way, perhaps recycling produces impure products in the eyes of many Asians – after all, brand new, fresh items are considered good luck.

      I also reckon recycling is still a fairly new concept to some in Asia, and that could probably be due to a lack of education in that part of the world – education is not always affordable fore everyone there. Perhaps some also see it more convenient just to throw something away as opposed to recycling – convenience is always popular with Asians.

      Hope this helps, Uri. Happy travels.

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  14. Hi Mabel,
    I am an American but have lived in Australia. In both countries I’ve notices Asian students using paper Starbucks or Abercrombie bags etc. for lunch bags. I am curious, if you know where or how this fad started or if it is just a younger generation’s way of personalizing how they reuse shopping bags.

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    • That is an interesting observation, Cheyenne. Not sure how it started but maybe it may be that those kinds of bags seem more trendy than others around – and too nice to throw away just after one use. Or it could be a status and pride thing – if you can afford those bags, subconsciously you fit into the demographic that lives a relatively well off life and can connect better with them. Or as you said, it could be down to personalising.

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