Overseas rubbish threat looms large

By Sun Xiaohua (China Daily)
Updated: 2007-01-23 07:18

A British media report claiming that Britain dumps 1.9 million tons of garbage in China every year has cast a harsh light on China's booming rubbish imports and their baleful influence on the environment.

Quoting official figures in Britain, the Sunday Mirror reported that in 1997, the country sent 12,000 tons of paper, plastics and metals to China. That figure rocketed 158-fold in the eight years to 2005.

"Campaigners fear vast amounts of the waste, including potentially lethal chemicals, are ending up in illegal landfill sites instead of being recycled," the story said.

Waste paper accounted for about 1.5 million of the 1.9 million tons of rubbish sent to China. The remainder composed of plastics and metals, including copper, nickel, aluminium, zinc, lead, tin and tungsten, which could poison water supplies if they leaked, the story said.

However, the story showed one part of the jigsaw puzzle.

The Report on Status and Trend of Solid Waste in China, which was released last year by the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development, an office under the country's top environmental administration, showed that rubbish imports have grown steadily since 1996, when the country completed legislation on the practise.

After 2001, rubbish imports have exceeded 20 million tons every year. In 2004, the volume reached 33 million tons.

"The imports fill the gap between raw material shortages and increasing demand," said Li Jinhui, a professor at Tsinghua University's Department of Environmental Science and Engineering.

"The imported rubbish is allowed to contain certain amounts of chemical substances or hazardous materials, according to regulation," Li said.

"But the influence on the environment cannot be neglected, let alone the smuggling of waste into China."

According to the government's report, 70 percent of the electronic waste produced around the world every year illegally finds its way into China, and 90 percent of such waste is broken down in small workshops. Because these workshops tend to employ very basic technology, large amounts of dangerous materials end up getting released into their surroundings.

The town of Guiyu in South China's Guangdong Province is representative of the situation.

Lured by the prospect of immediate economic gains for example, the opportunity to pull 450 grams of gold and 1,300 grams of copper from 1 ton of electronic boards many of the town's residents have cast their lots with the recycling business, winning Guiyu the distinction of being one of the world's electronic waste terminals.

Environmental inspections have shown that the town has no potable water. More than 80 percent of the town's children are suffering from lead poisoning, and the cancer rate is above normal.

The government report warned that because of the electronic waste smuggling small-scale workshops had spread into central China in recent years.

It was estimated that the amount of hazardous waste in China would surpass the country's environmental capacity by 2020, resulting in severe secondary pollution.

(China Daily 01/23/2007 page3)

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