文章 Articles

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.

Article image

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.

Now more than ever…

chinadialogue is at the heart of the battle for truth on climate change and its challenges at this critical time.

Our readers are valued by us and now, for the first time, we are asking for your support to help maintain the rigorous, honest reporting and analysis on climate change that you value in a 'post-truth' era.

Support chinadialogue

发表评论 Post a comment

评论通过管理员审核后翻译成中文或英文。 最大字符 1200。

Comments are translated into either Chinese or English after being moderated. Maximum characters 1200.

评论 comments

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




the only reason why so many waste goes to china is that china subventions all transports in to china because they not only desperately need new containers for their exports...

the waste that is imported is in fact not waste ... china does not allow importing waste ...
its plastic and other raw materials that can be recycled (so the waste is shredded here to count as raw materials) that bring more money to be sent to china then being recycled in the own country.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



总之而言, 它说将密切关注和打击任何非法的进口。我想说的是,这样做很象处理普通事物。

SEPA roused

I see that the State Environmental Protection Administration has issued a press-release in response to this issue:

To summarise, it says it will be watching the matter closely and cracking down on any illegal imports. That's pretty much business as usual, I'd say.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Chinese "merely" throw away 13 kg per person

The author's nationalism is clouding his rational judgment. Did you notice that he says Chinese on average "merely" throw away 13 kg per person -- when Europeans throw away 15 (!)
Thank God for Nuclear Weapons -- otherwise the rest of the world would soon be overwhelmed with nationalist Chinese.....

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



作者的原文是:“美国人均消费包装塑料量达23.4公斤, 日本20.1公斤, 欧洲15公斤,而中国最少,约为13公斤。”翻译文是:“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. ”在作者的原文里根本没有“merely” 仅仅的含义,就这样读者从翻译文里造成了对作者的误解。这也提醒我们的翻译者和校对者们应该对待文章更加的仔细认真。

Re:comment 13. I think over-translation leads to the misunderstanding of the author's idea.

Re:comment 13. I think over-translation leads to the misunderstanding of the author's idea.The original text is: "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, and in China it is about 13 kilograms." However, the translation is:"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." There is no intention of making any comparison using"merely" in the original text, and this is how readers are misled by translation, which should remind our translators and proofreaders of being more faithful and careful in translation.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




Food for thought

I stumbled upon this page through a Wikipedia citation. I find the text to be of a highly nationalistic bend, something that one could say has become something of a Chinese imperative in recent years. It takes away from objectivity and makes it difficult for people to take such statements at face value, breeding skepticism and mistrust.

In that regard, I have one simple observation. The main problem here, as discussed, is the west taking advantage of China, with the author spending much time discussing the role of plastic waste. I would like the author and other readers to ponder this point: Can it not be argued that by selling the world most of its final plastic goods, China is in fact exporting vast amounts of unrecyclable plastic waste around the world with no consequence?

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



reply to 15

I am outraged at the logic of comment 15. According to his logic, China sells plastic overseas then after foreign countries have consumed the value of plastic China should then recycle it. So with China being an oil importer and as plastic is manufactured using oil, according to his logic, oil producing countries have a responsibility to bear the burden of all the harm that oil brings? We not only export plastic, we import cars. China has virtually no true nationally-produced cars, so when a car is abandoned, shouldn't we have American and German car manufacturers recycle them. This is not nationalism this is a demand for fairness and a moral justness. Developed countries have money, but this does not necessarily mean that they can export what they want and import what they want.

Translated by Mike Thomson

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous





My arguments

These actions are actually interest-driven and the monitoring system in China is no more than a name. I once heard that the requirements of spies being sent to China are the lowest, for only knowing simple Chinese would do.

Whether it is true or not, it explains that China overly emphasizes economic development but ignores supervision in many aspects. It is true that the environment for economic development needs to be flexible. Yet, we should learn the lessons from the development history of other countries, that developing economy at the the expense of the environment would only bring harms.

Image and "face" building attempts are popular in Chinese officialdom, and officials tend to present one-sided data for the sake of rewards and promotions. Therefore, some Unscrupulous countries can take advantage.

Translated by Ming Li