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China must say no to imported waste

The UK sends almost two million tonnes of rubbish to China every year. By shipping its trash abroad, says Jiang Gaoming, Britain favours its local environment at the expense of developing countries.

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It was a message from my former student, now at Sheffield University, which alerted me to the story first reported by Sky TV: that Britain is transporting huge quantities of solid waste to China. The report said that in one recent trip the world's largest container ship, the Emma Maersk, had delivered 170,000 tonnes of trash to Lianjiao in south China’s Guangdong province. Carrier bags from Tesco, the UK supermarket, and waste from food packaging were easily visible in the scattered rubbish.

Every year, China exports £16 billion worth of goods to the UK. In return, China receives 1.9 million tonnes of waste from the UK, the bulk of it non-biodegradable plastic. In only eight years, the amount of rubbish shipped to China has increased more than 150 times over.

Nature itself produces virtually no waste; one creature’s waste will be food for another. But even the most voracious of species cannot break down the organic compounds found in plastics. These 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 chemicals linger in the environment for long periods and can enter the human body through food or respiration, causing poisoning, cancers and even death.

Workers pick the plastic out of this imported rubbish, which is then melted down and reused. The fumes from the melting process act as an irritant, and the chemical byproducts of the process are dumped into nearby rivers, blackening the water and damaging the environment in the city of Guangzhou, which lies downstream. But this is not the worst of it.

Burning plastics results in the release of at least five of the 12 POPs listed by the Stockholm Convention. When these criminals – both Chinese and British – dump their rubbish on Chinese soil, they bring with them these toxic chemicals. “It will take seven generations for these pollutants to disappear from the human body,” warned Li Guogang, chief engineer at the China National Environmental Monitoring Center.

Overseas waste dumping is a classic case of countries exporting their problems. The average American discards 23.4 kilograms of plastic packaging a year. In Japan and Europe the figures are 20.1 kilograms and 15 kilograms respectively, while in China it is a mere 13 kilograms. Developed countries recognised the threats that plastics pose long ago, and responded by using new materials and developing recycling. Before the 1980s in the US, waste plastic was dumped in landfill sites, but a sorting and recycling system now allows a high level of reuse. But some nations, such as the UK, prefer to use other countries as rubbish tips – exporting their pollution and turning a profit at the same time.

It is this profit that drives large-scale exports of waste overseas. British officials admit that waste exporters earn on both sides of the trade. They earn £35 per tonne of waste from local councils in the UK, and then instead of processing anything, pocket the cash and sell the waste on to Chinese importers. This trade, exposed by the UK press, has left China asking angry questions: who are these Chinese importers that are willing to endanger the health of their own people? Who is responsible for monitoring these firms? How can the local environmental authorities turn a blind eye when China’s rivers are running black? Where is the government when workers risk their lives sorting rubbish? If any one of these organisations fulfilled its responsibility, this trade would have been stopped, yet they look the other way for the sake of profit.

The UK government surely bears some responsibility. In 2005, Elliot Morley, then UK Minister for Environment, pledged to end the dumping of unprocessed waste. Two years later, the current Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare, Ben Bradshaw, said the public did not need to worry about this trade, as its impact on global warming is tiny. He even hinted that it would be a “waste of resources” for ships to return to China empty, referring in fact to the £35 pounds per tonne that would otherwise have to be spent on processing the waste, and the income that would be lost from Chinese importers. Sacrificing another country's environment to defend its own backyard – whatever happened to Britain’s tradition of the “gentleman”?

One cannot help but be reminded of the Opium Wars of the nineteenth century. To resolve their economic crisis, the British peddled opium in China – to the harm of both the nation and its people. And now they are up to their old tricks, exporting the consequences of their extravagant consumption. Even the location – Guangdong – is the same. The difference is that now the smoke comes not from the opium burnt at Humen, but from burning plastics.

By now we should be alert to these “invasions” from developed, capitalist nations; the dumping of waste in China has been an issue for years. The US and Japan are also involved, and have turned minor Chinese ports into rubbish tips. China must not allow itself to become the world's dumping ground. We must shut down the profit-seeking criminals – both in China and the rest of the world – who threaten China’s environment, which 1.3 billion people rely on.

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



Importing waste

But for import quota, there would be no way any agents could import the waste, so all the waste imports in the zone were approved by the governments, either the local or central. Needs to work with the governments first to see who granted the permit to import the waste in there.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Very well said!

That was very well said.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Garbage is stronger than opium

Opium burns and vanishes into thin air. Garbage burns, but the pollution lives on for generations and generations.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



在发展中国家, 国家及地方官员得到外国政府的资金以接受洋垃圾。


nationalistic rubbish

The author gives the impression that the Royal Navy escorts these ships to China and forces the port to offload foreign garbage.
National and local officials in developing countries who accept this waste get paid by the foreign governments. The waste is accepted by these governments with open arms (even if the common people don't want it).
China is certainly no different.


Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



"我们不禁想起了160多年前的那场战争。" 我理解您的意思,但岂不说得太过分了吗?

"我们是该警惕发达资本主义国家新的大举‘入侵’的时候了。" 让我们稍理性一点来看这个问题。其实,这个问题跟国家并没关系;这种贸易在诸方面不仅违反国际法, 也违反了参与贸易国家的法律。


这不是像鸦片战争一样的英国政府迫使中国人接受非法的货物。 问题在于犯法的中外团体蔑视本国家及全世界的法律。我们应该谴责应被谴责的人。

您还说:"谁在危及中国环境。" 这种贸易也在危及全世界的环境,因为它所引起的污染可以超越国界。总之,我完全同意这种贸易根本是错误的,必须立即停止。

Strong words!

Those are strong words.

"One cannot help but be reminded of the Opium Wars of the nineteenth century."

I see your point, but aren't you taking things a little far?

"By now we should be alert to these “invasions” from developed, capitalist nations"

Please, let's approach this with a little more reason. There are no nations involved, and many aspects of this trade are illegal under international law as well as the laws of all the countries involved. It is not 'nations', but unscrupulous individuals, both Chinese and foreign, doing the 'invading'. Without Chinese involvement, this trade would not exist.

It is not an Opium War-style forcing of illegal commodities on the Chinese people by the British government, it is criminal groups, both Chinese and foreign, flouting the laws of their countries and the world as a whole. Let's place the blame where it should be laid.

"who threaten China’s environment"

This time you've understated your case. They threaten the world's environment. The pollution caused by this trade does not recognise international boundaries.

Having said all that, I agree wholeheartedly, this trade is fundamentally wrong and must be stopped immediately.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


这跟所谓的"典型的英国绅士风度"没关系 ,在这个时代,利益决定一切.

British gentlemen?

This has nothing to do with the so-called "classic British gentleman's manner". These days, profit determines everything.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


评论5的作者很正确地批评了这篇文章进行的鸦片战争类比。但对一个中国现代历史的学生来说,我想以恶意的英国殖民地主义来作为鸦片战争的主要原因是太简单了。像现代的废物倾倒这个问题一样,在中国的鸦片贸易只通过中国的参与是可能的:有些商人以为毒品走私划得来;清代贪官没有实行了帝国法令;对经济的大部分,包括服务业(鸦片窝点,茶楼,妓院,等等)和制造业(鸦片工具)消费者的需求是很有益的。此外鸦片战争不是因侵略英国外政策交就造成的,但因为英国商人有了法律中的权利从英国政府找报销。这个报销是因为清代政府抓住了他们的鸦片。因此那些战争应该是从一个法律的角度来看。连最后南京条约为了外交目的被操纵了,鸦片战争并也不是外交的事情。我不想开脱英国政府的责任;因为参加了鸦片贸易它还是值得责怪。这个问题是多方面的。最后中国爱国主义的宣传不应该让现在的事变得不清楚, 也不应该歪曲像鸦片战争这样的往事。

The Opium Wars and waste dumping: A Reconsideration

The author of comment #5 rightfully criticizes the Opium War analogy used in the article. However, as a student of modern Chinese history, I find it too simplistic to attribute the cause of the Opium Wars to malignant British imperialism. As with the current waste dumping problem, the opium trade in China was only made possible through Chinese participation: a class of merchants found it lucrative to smuggle the drug; corrupt Qing officials did not enforce imperial prohibition edicts; and a large part of the economy, both in services (opium dens, teahouses, brothels etc.) and in manufacturing (opium paraphernalia), profited from the increased demand of conspicuous consumers. In addition, the Opium Wars did not begin because of aggressive British foreign policy, but because British merchants had a legal right to seek reimbursement from the British government for the opium they had lost at the hands of the Qing government. The Wars must therefore be viewed in a legal rather than a foreign policy framework, even if the Treaty of Nanjing that resulted from it was manipulated for foreign policy ends. I do not wish to exonerate the British government: it was was a moral culprit in the opium trade. But the problem was multi-faceted. Ultimately, Chinese nationalist rhetoric should neither cloud our judgment of current issues such as waste dumping, nor of past events like the Opium Wars.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Every country should clear up their own waste

China everyday produces waste than it could treat and dispose. So the country is already not able to take more rubbish.

Moreover, to ship waste from England to China lead to CO2 emissions, so it is not an eco-friendly approach to do so.

Whatever reasons before the rubbish trading, it must be stopped for the sake of our planet, by coordinated operation between countries.

Every country is responsible to clean up their own waste.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




I find the article quite objective. It does not place one-sided blame on Britain, but scathingly exposes the mutual errors committed by Britain and China. As importers, China's local officials infringe upon Chinese laws and regulations. Yet as the exporter, the British government also infringes upon its own parallel laws and regulations. As with opium, transgressions are committed due to mutual collusion in illegal activity, and blame should be equally placed on both sides. No one wishes another Opium War to break out. Therefore, both sides should reflect upon their own mistakes, and immediately stop the filthy waste trade.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous





在全球的每个角落,英帝国利用商人打前战。 谈到清朝的法律,英国商人就是走私犯,从而政府有权来查获他们的物品。

Waste Goes Wherever People Are Poor

This was a domestic problem before it was global--in a free market system, waste is always buried under the cheapest land. In the UK, waste and associated processing went to poor areas, so too in the U.S. (e.g. New York sends garbage to the American South) and in today's China. This is a prototypical issue for which a capitalist approach simply does not work.

As for the Opium Wars, a strictly legal perspective is ludicrous. The British defined which laws should be honored and which could be broken. In every corner of the globe, a growing British empire used merchants as an advance guard. From the perspective of Qing law, they were simply smugglers whose goods the government had every right to seize.