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.

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.