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"A sea of plastic"

Short-term profit motives have led China’s farmers to use polluting plastics, chemical fertilisers and herbicides in abandon. The country needs sustainable farming to preserve the quality of its food – and its land, writes Jiang Gaoming.

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During my recent visits to villages in the Chinese provinces of Henan, Hebei, Tianjin and Shandong, I saw the phenomenon of “white pollution” with my own eyes. This “white terror” is the sea of plastic that covers our land and blows on the breeze along the highways.

This plastic membrane used in agriculture can be seen strewn between fields, in ditches and beside roads – you even see it on streets in towns and in household courtyards, piled layer upon layer. I have visited dozens of countries, but never seen plastic used on such a scale as it now is in China. And it looks as if the country’s five millennia of agricultural history may now be destroyed by the excessive use of plastic membrane, fertiliser, pesticides and herbicides. 

Plastic has two main uses in farming – to construct plastic greenhouses for growing crops out of season, and covering the ground to increase the value of crops. In the provinces of Shandong and Hebei, I saw it used to grow almost every crop, apart from cereals like wheat and maize. Peanuts, potatoes, watermelons, garlic, eggplants, peppers and tobacco are all grown under plastic.

The farmers say that covering the ground with a plastic membrane increases the temperature and humidity of the soil, extending the growing season and increasing harvests by 20% to 50%. When growing crops such as peanuts, they say, it can even double production. This method of farming may be a new scientific advance, but nobody has considered whether our environment can cope with the plastic waste that results. Currently, about half a million tonnes of the plastic is left in the soil every year, almost 40% of the total plastic used. This forms a layer in the earth which is less permeable to water and air, making it harder to farm.

More careful farmers will remove the membrane from their fields at the end of the growing season, but they only go so far as to throw it to the edge of their land. The plastic is light and covered with earth, so it is difficult to sell for recycling. When there is a big enough pile of the stuff, the farmers generally burn it – polluting the environment even further.

Plastic can be seen across China's fields

Organic compounds which do not biodegrade are known as Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), and 12 of the most harmful of these chemicals were restricted or banned by the 2004 Stockholm Convention on POPs. These compounds linger in the environment for long periods and can enter the human body through food or respiration, causing poisoning, cancers and even death. Burning plastic membrane results in the release of at least five of the 12 POPs listed by the Stockholm Convention.

Ten years ago, officials from the Ministry of Agriculture and Ministry of Science and Technology expressed hopes that scientists could develop a microorganism to break down plastic waste – but there has been little success. Despite frequent and promising-sounding reports to the contrary, these methods are expensive and ineffective, and the farmers simply do not use them. Officials and their scientists have both made a fundamental error: plastic is not something that can be dealt with by the natural world. The solution is to look for an alternative material or use policy measures to stop its use, and control the pollution at the source.

While it may be true that the large-scale use of plastic membrane increases production, it also lowers quality. All living organisms will suffer and lose quality if you force them to grow in an unnatural manner, such as cultivating them very rapidly. It can mean a loss of flavour, as well as pollution in the fields. Thanks to the use of plastic membrane and fertiliser in agriculture, I have seen garlic shoots thicker than my thumb – impossible 20 or 30 years ago – but the farmers themselves will tell you that the flavour is not the same. In the past, garlic would be covered with straw and natural fertiliser, but now plastic membrane and chemical fertilisers are used, and the taste has suffered.

Some will say that since the harvests are bigger, the farmers can earn more. But in reality, the extra income is divided up among other parties, with little left for the farmers themselves – even though they bear the risks. In practice, the merchants who sell the plastic, exporters, wholesalers, local traders and retailers all want to divide the extra income. Extra earnings that come from waiving agricultural taxes or from increased subsidies are quickly swallowed up by increases in the cost of raw materials – and the farmers are left to deal with the pollution. They remain at society's lowest level, and never earn as much from greater harvests as they can by leaving the land and working in the cities. In one area, I saw the price of garlic shoots drop from 1 yuan (US$0.15) a kilogram to 0.6 yuan over the course of two days. Last year, freshly-picked garlic sold for 2.4 yuan a kilogram; this year it only fetches 1.4 a kilogram. With every household planting the same crops, the farmers are unable to withstand the market risk.

Covering the ground with plastic and chemical fertiliser is comparable to feeding it with opium: crops grow bigger and faster, but the land becomes unhealthy and reliant on artificial support. Nowadays, farmers often say that nothing will grow without lots of fertiliser. The plastic, fertiliser, pesticide, herbicide and additives accumulate in the soil and sap its vitality in the long term.

Farmers rely on the land for their living, and it is vital that we protect the land, rather than encouraging farmers to use unnatural methods for the sake of short-term profit. Yet the widespread use of plastic membrane has been promoted by the Ministry of Agriculture and government.

Instead of turning the earth white with plastic, we should be using organic material to make it darker: feeding straw to livestock to produce meat, milk and dung. This dung can subsequently be used to produce methane, and the residue can fertilise the fields. Increasing the organic content of the soil and improving its structure will allow high levels of sustainable – rather than short-term – production. Livestock and energy production will be increased, and the value added to the land will be much greater than using plastic. The use of organic fertiliser will reduce the volume of chemical fertilisers used, and eliminating the use of plastic will reduce costs and put a stop to this “white pollution”. These are all needed to provide a healthy path forward for China’s agriculture, and must be considered by the Ministry of Agriculture, the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), Ministry of Land and Resources and the Ministry of Science and Technology.

Farmers’ income must be increased through appropriate measures, with increased production and increased efficiency going hand in hand, the land being protected and pollution reduced. Short-term methods such as the use of plastic membrane exploit the land without caring for it. In fact, these methods destroy the land – and should be discontinued altogether.

Jiang Gaoming is a professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Botany. He is also vice secretary-general of the UNESCO China-MAB (Man and the Biosphere) Committee and a member of the UNESCO MAB Urban Group.

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




Prof. Jiang's article

As a technological product, plastic membrane should not be blamed. Instead, it is the way we use causing the problems.

What we need to do is to help farmers know how to deal with used plastic membrane. The simplest way is to help increase farmers' awareness of land protection.

I am now in Japan. People in developed countries have strong self-awareness, say a person will pick up the rubbish littered by somebody else.

Used plastic membrane and plastic bags are scattered randomly in China. Should scientists be blamed for this phenomenon?

A plastic bag could be used for 20 times it is used in a proper way. Is it possible for the "white pollution" to prevail if centralized recycling of plastic membrane and bags is on an increase.

If everyone just uses plastic products in a free-and-easy attitude and without any sense of recycling, the white pollution problem could be not resolved even all people in the world become scentists.

Human issue belongs to political category.

If plastic membrane could be used for several times, do you think peasants will easily throw them away.

In the article, Pro. Jiang said: "plastic membrane is not something that can be dealt with by the natural world." This is unreasonable opinion and thus laughable. As you know, it is not difficult to get heat- and damp-preserving, degradable plastic. The difficulty is how to reduce the cost for the product. Lichen

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


有趣的评论,Lichen, 但是我不太同意。“农膜没有错,错的是我们的使用方式。”这让我想起美国的亲枪议员们经常挂在嘴上的那句“枪不会杀人,是人杀人。”...恕我直言,我觉得两者同样存在谬误。毕竟,如果可以生产生物可降解的塑料,或使用更可持续的材料,为什么不呢?越来越多的发达国家已经开始意识到在减少塑料使用量的问题上意识培养收效有限,削减塑料垃圾的最佳方案就是一禁了事:毕竟,塑料袋是耗费自然资源、耗费能量生产创造出的垃圾,会让海洋生物消亡,让陆地垃圾激增。为什么在农用塑料问题上干脆用同样方法解决呢?

Re: comment 1

An interesting comment Lichen, but I find myself disagreeing.

"Plastic membrane should not be blamed. Instead, it is the way we use causing the problems."

This reminds me of the "guns don't kill people, people do" argument that is so often used by the pro-gun lobby in the US... and with all due respect, I think it is equally fallacious. After all, if biodegradable plastic can be manufactured, or more sustainable materials can be used, why should they not be?

More and more places in the developed world have been realising that the impact of awareness-raising is limited in reducing plastic use, and the best option to reduce plastic waste is simply to ban plastic bags outright: after all, the bags use up natural resources, consume energy to make, create litter, choke marine life and add to landfill waste.

Why not simply do the same with plastic used for agricultural purposes?

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


蒋教授,您好!看过您写的这篇文章后,对您的这种忧国忧民的责任心肃然起敬。因为我们这几年也一致力为于解决“白色污染”,尤其是为如何消除地膜污染而努力,因此对目前的地膜污染深有同感。  不过,蒋教授,我要告诉您一个好消息,英国WELLS塑料公司已经成功研发了一种“神奇”的含氧-完全生物降解添加剂,可以使塑料制品在完成其使用寿命后12-24个月之内完全降解成水和二氧化碳,而且不会对土壤和动植物造成毒害,可以从根本上解决“白色污染”。我们可以不用再为地膜污染而烦恼了!
Diana Zeng
(MSN:[email protected])

We have the power to deal with "white pollution".

Hello, Prof. Jiang! After reading your article, I'm very grateful that you have such a responsible attitude towards national and public issues. I share your concerns for the current pollution caused by plastic menbrane, because we've been working on the "white pollution" problem for years and have paid special attention to the mitigation of plastic pollution.

However, Prof. Jiang, I have a piece of good news for you. A British plastic company called WELLS has already developed a "magic" additive with oxygen included which is fully biodegradable. It can turn plastics into water and carbon dioxide fully, within 12-24 hours after the expiration of their validity, causing no harm to the soil, plants and animals, thus fundamentally resolving the issue of "white pollution". We can stop worrying about membrane pollution from now on!

Since the year 2006, we have started the application of this technology in China. In case of membrane, currently, it has been used in Shandong (Qingdao, Weifang, Cangshan, etc.) and in a military settlement in Xinjiang. The advantages of this technology include not only the introduction of full biodegradability, but also the control of its timing by changing the portion of different ingredients in its formula.

Furthermore, it is also a technology that welcomed by plastic processing factories and the general public, for it requires absolutely the same processing methods, conditions, equipment, etc. as that of adding other masterbatches like colour masterbatch, and it requires no big increase in costs.

We are still collecting data from experiments in different places. Hopefully we can work together to promote this advanced biodegradable technology in China, making contributions to the protection of farmland and the environment.

Diana Zeng (MSN: [email protected])

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Prohibition is useful way?

Using prohibitions has always been the most effective, but also the most foolish way of handling a problem. Pollution is much like a flood: what starts as necessity becomes unstoppable. The same for example, goes for distribution of guns. If you were to prohibit guns, there would still be knives. If you were to prohibit knives, there would still be stones. You could confiscate all the objects known to humankind, but you could still not eradicate the hatred in people’s minds. I am defending the use of plastic bags in the same way I am also in favour of technological advance. We advocate environmentalism, not regression to a primitive society. Lichen

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Concerns about China's farmland

1. White pollution is everywhere.
2. The amount of farmland is shrinking.
3. The soil suffers serious pollution.
4. The frequency of droughts and flooding is on the rise.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Peasants' understanding of production means

Peasants are not unconscious at all of the current unscientific production means of killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.

By instinct, they could judge any production means.

But they cannot ensure the ownership of farmlands. Unlawful expropriation of farmlands and local distortion of polices made by the Central Government are commonplace in China.

If you know you will lose your farmlands next year, do you think you will choose a production mean with a long-term yield.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


白色污染在我们周围越来越普遍 ,我觉得应该尽快研制出可以快速降解的塑料袋及一次性饭盒才是可行之道,以目前情况,靠禁止是绝对不行的!

Cannot count on abandonment

White pollution is more and more common around us. I believe we can only resolve the issue with better R&D, developing plastic bags and disposable lunch boxes that are degradable within a short period of time. Given the status quo, to simply abandon plastics is a way that'll never work!

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Issues to resolve

Things happen for a reason. Prohibition doesn't work, and the absence of controls don't work either. The shortcut is first to identify the issues to resolve.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




一、 视觉污染。
二、 潜在危害。



Legislation is needed to deal with white pollution

Before 1980, rat poison was sold illegally; now it's hard to see those who are selling it--in 2003 government took this seriously and took some measures to fight against those dealers, and the sellers stopped selling poison in the open air, the industry became an underground industry. So, we can see how the manipulation by politics and law is so effective. Now to deal with white pollution, it's not enough to depend solely on education among people and, even worse, on self-scrutiny--the development of self-scrutiny needs a long time and it would be too late to cover the losses by the time that most chinese are more aware. Only if the policy-makers realize the damage of white pollution can we stop it. There are two kinds of damage from white pollution: visual one and potential one. I deem the main damage is the deterioration of the environment. Plastics can stop the growth of grasses and trees. In my village, there is shallow land covered by water all year around; we can hear the croaking of frogs in summer night. Nowadays, the water has been covered by plastics, cutting the water from air, so the living things under water has died from suffocation, and we can no longer hear the croaking of frogs during summer nights. If such creatures like frogs would be wiped out from China's vast land, that would be a great pity.In China, we use the earth membranes to grow grains, as a result there are about 0.5 million tons agricultural membranes left over on the earth, which is the greatest white pollution. Times flies and we would finally lose our land on which we depend. To grow grains like this has no differences with the deeds like killing the hens for eggs.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


您好 蒋先生!
我看过您的文章“中国需高度警惕耕地白色污染”,钦佩您为国为民的行为。我有一项技术,名:农作物地衣种植法,可解您的心中之忧。使用塑料作地衣覆盖地表种庄稼,增产效果与地膜覆盖相同。地衣可完整无缺地回收,在作物成熟前后回收,可多次使用,最终还可卖废塑料,不污染耕地,又能减少投资。Diana Zeng(MSN:[email protected])所说的魔方,也远不如它。魔方再好,农民也得年年买地膜,全国也得年年把几十万吨塑料埋入土中。我们在2005年就拿到了专利受理书,但两年多了未得到批准。至使这项技术不能推广应用,至使我国的农民每年要把50万吨塑料埋入土中,不仅浪费了宝贵的资源,更严重的是污染了土地。我希望“农作物地衣种植法”能引起您的关注,希望得到众多有识之士的支持。 zhangftacz ([email protected]

Lichen can put an end to the pollution of arable land.

Dear Mr. Jiang,

I've read your article “A sea of plastic” and I strongly admire your thoughts for the country and the land.

I suggest a new technique, namely “the lichen method”, which can put an end to the white pollution of arable land.

I can explain the main issue: the use of plastic makes lichen cover the surface of crops and seeds, the resulting effects of the plastic membrane is the same.

Lichen can complete the recycling process, the ripe lichen can recycle the crops from the beginning to the end, and can do it many times. It is eventually possible to sell the plastic waste, so there's no land pollution and it's possible to reduce the cost.

The magic substance cited by Diana Zeng (MSN:[email protected]) is also inferior.

The magic substance is good, but every year the peasants have to buy the plastic membrane and the whole country has to embed hundreds of thousands of tons of plastic into the land.

In 2005 we had the patent to process books, but after two years it has not yet been approved. This is why technology will not achieve popularity and why the peasants of our land have to embed five hundred thousand tons of plastic into the land, not only wasting important natural resources, but above all polluting the soil. I hope the “lichen method” draws attention and increases support. zhangftacz ([email protected]