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Waste exports: the underside of globalisation

Many claim the global trash trade exposes the west's hypocrisy. But are countries to blame - or companies? Governments, businesses and the public must all play a role in managing the environment, says Tang Hao.

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Sky TV recently reported that the world's largest container ship, the Emma Maersk, had arrived in south China’s Lianjiao, laden with 170,000 tonnes of rubbish. The local economy has relied on waste recycling for years. As a result, fumes can be seen pouring out of Lianjiao’s chimneys, its rivers are blackened, its soil is contaminated, its water is polluted and trash can be seen piled up like mountains. The story has ignited controversy in both the UK and China.

But this is not a new phenomenon. Western nations started exporting waste to developing countries as early as the 1960s and ‘70s, with disastrous consequences. In August 2006, a boat chartered by a Netherlands-based firm dumped hundreds of tonnes of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast, killing seven and hospitalising 24, with almost 40,000 people suffering to some degree.

The overwhelming opinion of online commentators is that this demonstrated how western countries adhere to double standards with regard to the environment. But waste dumping is not carried out by nations: it is carried out by corporations.

Exporting trash has allowed firms to earn money from governments in the developed world, cutting government costs and avoiding local regulations, while the exporters earn an additional income from selling the rubbish. At the same time, developing countries get a source of raw materials. China is the world's second largest consumer of plastic; one tonne of synthetic resin costs 11,000 yuan (around US$1,420), but a tonne of imported plastic, discarded in the west, can be bought for as little as  4,000 yuan (around US$515). The work of sorting the waste is hard and dirty, but for many it is more lucrative than the alternative. “We’re poor, so we still have to,” explained one interviewee. “If we plant crops, we can only earn around 2,000 yuan (around US$260) every year. But this work pays much more quickly: as much as 800 yuan (around US$100) every month.”

When there is this kind of profit to be made, there will always be someone willing to risk others’ health by importing trash, and many more who will endanger their own to sort it: it is simple economics.

Or is it? If the UK had weaker environmental laws, money could be made processing waste there, and nobody would export rubbish to China. Trash ends up in China because developed countries have more robust green laws, greater social supervision and more effective governments; high fees associated with waste processing and pollution emissions have made it uneconomical to process the trash locally.

But the low cost of waste processing and the large profits to be made in China make it a lucrative industry. Meanwhile, government oversight is weak and punishment is mainly in the form of fines that go directly to government rather than compensating the victims of pollution. As a result, companies and individuals involved can keep on polluting. 

Globalisation benefits both developed and developing nations, but environmental laws and their enforcement are weaker in poorer countries. This gives richer nations a chance to export their waste and pollution. The economic and environmental differences are, in essence, the result of underdeveloped systems.

Globalisation increases the interaction between different systems, and exposes the gaps between them. In the same way that less-developed systems attract unregulated and risky investments, they also attract waste.

Governments, businesses and the international community should make a sustained effort to prevent the continuation and expansion of this serious problem.

International agreements that invoke the authority of a third party should be implemented. Sponsored by the United Nations or global environmental groups, such agreements would reduce the potential for harm to developing countries. The third party should also be able to help with the costs of environmental protection.

It is also important to control those factors that allow this unregulated trade. In this particular case, the UK government should bear responsibility for not implementing international agreements, take its rubbish back and discuss more effective systems for managing the international flow of solid waste with the Chinese government. Similarly, China should increase the cost of waste production and waste imports to reduce the price differentials: only this can get to the root of the problem. Otherwise, this issue will become intractable, and more problems will arise.

The Chinese government recognises the harm caused, and a law on solid waste is being rushed through the legislative process. Laws and regulations should be enough to improve the management of imported waste and reduce its environmental harm. But many have concerns about their effectiveness; waste processing and plastics are still highly lucrative industries, and the companies at the heart of the industry may just relocate.

The most basic and important measure is to build the public into the new systems. In the west, it is social pressure that blocks interest groups, keeps the government in line and pushes for strict environmental policies. Public movements inspired by environmental disasters in the 1960s and ‘70s led to a solid environmental protection system and a tradition of public oversight of the environment.

NGOs such as Greenpeace, the media, strict laws and responsible local governments must all play a part in helping China's environment to ensure that situations like this do not continue to arise.


Tang Hao is a Guangzhou-based academic and commentator

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


我建议读者点击这里到Salon.com上阅读Andrew Leonard的有趣的观点。它把全球的垃圾交易和中国对海外资源的需求联系了起来。



Waste and China's global footprint

I advise readers to look at Andrew Leonard's interesting point on Salon.com here , which links the global waste trade to China's quest for resources overseas. He says that Hao Tang's article complicates the simple nationalism of Gaoming Jiang's recent column on chinadialogue, and raises questions about unregulated, globalised trade. The question he then raises is: how does this affect our view on China's often under-regulated trade with Africa? -SL

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



A very in-depth analysis

Indeed, waste trade is not only a matter of who wrongs. Reasons behind each position are extremely complicated. And Mr Tang’s untangling thereof, is very thorough.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Not only England

In connection with China’s foreign trade in waste, we should remember that it is not only England. No matter which form the invasion takes on, all of them are comparable to those led by the Eight-Nation Alliance. It is one group pitched against another; the more advanced against those lagging behind; developed versus developing nations.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous





Blaming western green laws

The article's auther goes so far as to claim that the UK's tougher environmental laws force companies to dump waste overseas and not reprocess it at home.
Utter rubbish, it is the bottom line that forces UK and western companies in general to do this. Recycling, though unglamorous, still creates jobs, thus creating more tax revenue and increasing consumer spending in a developing country. Perhaps if developing countries made waste disposal fees painfully high, they could increase revenue, reduce total waste inflow and still have access to cheap sources of raw materials that are brought to their country as waste.

These writers come from countries where executives aren't free to act so they can't understand that western managers don't need to ask their gov't to do things outside of their countries'


Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


经济全球化,在缺乏政治全球监管的情况下,总会造成意想不到的灾难.推动全球垃圾贸易监管的责任在发达国家——那些从垃圾贸易中获得了直接或者间接好处的国家. -fying

Global commoditisation

Without a world surveillance structure, economic globalisation will cause unexpected disasters. Setting up such a surveillance structure is the responsibility of developed countries, which are exactly those, who gain from the waste trade, either directly or indirectly. -fying

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous





Repond to comment 4

You did not get the idea of the author. In fact, no matter in China or in the West, executives are not free to act because at most time they behave in an irresponsible way, so related laws are needed to regulate their work.

In the international trash trade, the lack of international regulations causes the irresponsible businesses conducted by western executives overseas. Although recycling creates jobs and it brings in short-term profits (for developing countries), it has huge negative impacts on the development of those nations.

Those encouraging trash trade do not really care for these people’s long-term well-being at all. Emphasizing short-term benefits is actually a hypocritical act. The article says that the gap between the systems cannot be filled shortly, so international efforts are needed to enhance regulations.

Under current situation, to strengthen international relations is one of the practical approaches to help reduce the impacts on developing countries by trash imports from the West. People who really care for the environment protection should strive to build international rules to regulate the trash trade.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


由此联想到垃圾(或叫做另一种资源)的贸易与碳交易可有一比。京都议定书下的Clean Development Mechanism CDM同样反映的是制度差异和减排二氧化碳成本差异的问题,力图实现联合国监管下的双赢机制,把发达国家的高成本减排义务放在发展中国家以较低成本实现。为什么CDM能得到联合国和各国的鼓励和提倡?无害化做得好?

Long Chain and Carbon Trade

If decomposing the long chain of waste trading and analyzing each one of the components, we will find that all stakeholders should claim responsible for this result. It is globalisation and institutional differences that brought in the reallocating flow of resources. It is way more complicated than the interpretation of "being national and emotional". Problem solving should start from institutional factors and the design of incentive policies.

Actually waste (or, an alternative resource) trading is parallel to carbon trading in a sense.
The CDM (Clean Development Mechanism) under Kyoto is also a reflection of the existing differences on institutions and abatement costs of CO2 across different countries. It strives to follow the win-win approach under the supervision of UN and to shift the mitigation responsibilities from high-cost advanced economies to low-cost developing countries. How can CDM get so much support from the UN and its member countries? Good at making it harmless?

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous







-Andrew Stevenson

Shared responsibilities for waste trade

International regulations distinguish between hazardous and non-hazardous waste. Under the Basel Convention, hazardous waste exports from developed (OECD) countries to developing (non-OECD) countries, including China, are banned.

Tackling the issue of trade in both types of waste requires that three conditions are satisfied.

One, developed and developing countries must ensure that their corporations are held to account for environmentally destructive actions no matter where they occur. This could be done internationally (binding code of conduct for transnational corporations; but this is politically unlikely, given the power of the corporate lobby) or by national legislation.

Two, international rules governing hazardous waste trade need to be tightened - for example, clarifying the legal status of the international ban on hazardous waste shipments under the Basel Convention (the Ban Amendment), and extending controls over e-waste and shipbreaking.

Three, China needs to improve its regulation of non-hazardous waste processing at home, and put far more emphasis on environmental considerations when sourcing resources abroad. Both will require accepting higher costs and potential losses to business competitors, in return for huge but diffuse health and environmental benefits. It remains to be seen whether either the Chinese government or public is willing to strike this deal.

- Andrew Stevenson

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Look big

I am a chinese uni student, i love china, but no more than the planet im living on;i would love china to be clean and green, but i want the whole earth to be clean and green even more..

despite all the "whos taking adevantage of whom" "pros and cons of globlisation" bla bla bla debates, who is really thinking about the enviornment or the globe other than money and politics????

let me put it this way, yes, maybe china is getting polluted rapidly, but at least she is reducing a huge amount of rubbish that was supposed to be dumped in the ocean. who cares if its the UK's ocean, or the States' ocean. in the end its OUR ocean!!!!!!!!

im not saying other countries should ship their rubbish to china so they can have a cleaner country. but come on, if china is cleaning up the world and making some money at the same time, then why not? why do we have to make the problem so complicated??????

maybe im just young and dumb, but thats what i think anyway

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



你好,我是一名在新西兰读书的中国学生.平时我一有空就出去camping, hiking, 因为新西兰的环境实在是太好了. 跟我住一起的有两个当地人, 他们告诉我, 新西兰处理不掉的垃圾, 就往中国运. 国际上是明文规定禁止这种垃圾运输, 但大家都在这样做...:(

顺便, 请问Andrew Stevenson先生是不是 Kiwi Tracks 的作者?


to Comment 8:

Hello, I'm a Chinese student in New Zealand. I'd like to go camping and hiking whenever I have time, as the nature in New Zealand really looks great. There are two locals living together with me. They told me that the waste that can't be processed by New Zealand are shipped to China. People are doing this, although this type of waste shipment is clearly forbidden by the law....:(

btw, may I ask whether Andrew Stevenson is the author of Kiwi Tracks?