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Public awareness needed to create eco-friendly society

By Kang Bing | China Daily | Updated: 2020-10-13 07:32
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Buildings are surrounded by trees in the Hainan Tropical Forest National Park, Hainan province. PU XIAOXU/XINHUA

Editor's Note: Thanks to years of efforts, China has made some remarkable achievements in the field of environmental protection. But can it overcome the remaining challenges? In the fourth of a series of commentaries, a senior journalist of China Daily tries to find the answer:

Each time I leave home for office, my wife reminds me to take one or two boxes to be dumped in the garbage bins downstairs. The boxes-made of cardboard, plastic or wood-are used to package the goods, mostly necessities, we order online. Each year, I throw away hundreds of such boxes.

Last year, as many as 63.5 billion express deliveries were made in China, up 25.3 percent year-on-year. This year, with the COVID-19 pandemic forcing people to spend most of their time indoors, the rate of increase is likely to be even higher. Although the data were announced to show how booming the delivery industry is, I can only visualize mountains of boxes and plastic bags for disposal.

Cardboard boxes, if properly collected and treated, can be recycled and reused, but plastic bags have become a serious problem frustrating China's environmental protection efforts.

Deliveries, takeouts, and goods purchased from malls, supermarkets and independent vendors all come with plastic bags. It's estimated that in 2019 alone take-out businesses in China used about 7 billion plastic bags, enough to cover China's entire land mass of 9.6 million square kilometers. Driving along roads in China, one can see plastic bags of different colors on the roadsides. And most of the parks with mountains have to hire "spidermen" to collect plastic bags from the mountain slopes.

To prevent the abuse of plastic bags, many cities have banned shopping malls, supermarkets and even independent vendors from providing free plastic bags for customers. But few have been successful in cutting the use of plastic bags, because when customers complain of inconvenience, they tend to offer plastic bags for fear of losing business, and such violations are difficult, if not impossible, to be detected and punished.

The good news is that the central government has recently introduced a guideline document banning the use of non-degradable plastic bags nationwide from next year. We all hope it works well, but unless the public is fully aware of the damage the bags cause to the environment and therefore our lives, and refuse to use them, the guideline cannot be fully successful.

Shanghai took the lead in enhancing public awareness about environmental protection last year by introducing garbage classification at home. It was followed by Beijing and a few dozen other cities this year. And by next year most of the Chinese cities are expected to introduce garbage classification. While how successful the garbage classification policy will be remains to be seen, the nationwide environmental protection campaign by the news media is expected to make the public more environmentally friendly.

Despite making impressive achievements in environmental protection over the past decades, China still has a long way to go to effectively handle all the waste-not only packaging boxes and plastic bags but also used home appliances, not least because China is the largest home appliance manufacturer and consumer in the world.

This year, about 137 million home appliances are likely to be discarded, with about 20 percent of them being refrigerators, TV sets, washing machines and air conditioners. But, unfortunately, only about 10 percent of the discarded appliances can be recollected and recycled by the producers due to the high cost involved. The majority will fall into the hands of "amateur" enterprises that are likely to take the parts they want and dump the rest in garbage dumps, thus causing more damage to the environment-contaminating our soil and water, and polluting our air. Very few city dwellers know where the rest of the parts end up. But we know they are buried somewhere ticking like environmental time bombs that could explode someday.

True, environmental protection has been made a State policy, but the central and lower level governments need to do more to create a better environment which is an important part of building a well-off society in an all-round way.

Public awareness about environmental protection should be further enhanced through education, while effective laws and regulations should be implemented and violators severely punished to deter more offenses, and prevent waste of natural resources. There is also a need to ban over-packaging, and adopt preferential compensation policies to make the recycling industry profitable.

I hope the day will come when I can leave my home empty-handed.

The author is former deputy editor-in-chief of China Daily.

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