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Finding solutions to 'white pollution'
By Chen Zhiyong (China Daily)
Updated: 2006-01-21 07:09

In this fast-paced world, the convenience of eating take-out and using single-use tableware draws in more and more people.

But despite their handiness, the plastic bags and foam plastic food containers have been associated with "white pollution," because they are non-degradable.

Still, packaging experts have recently said it's not the products alone that are to blame for the environmental pollution. The public needs to examine their own conducts and enforce strict codes in these products' production, disposal and recycling.

Starting in early 1980s, cheap, sanitary and food-preserving containers made of Styrofoam, a major type of foam plastics, won favour among Chinese people. It became widely used on trains and in the fast food industry.

However, people's environmental awareness did not keep up with rapidly increasing production of Styrofoam packaging.

It was common for people to toss the containers after using them, resulting in white disposable tableware littered everywhere, many piling up along the railways and floating in the rivers.

Such unpleasant terms as "the white Great Wall" and "white blanket" are often used to describe the messy scenes throughout cities.

"When the wind was blowing hard in those days, you could see plastic bags sail over the sky and hang up on the trees," recalled He Jiaxing, a veteran packaging expert and honorary director of China Green Packaging Association.

Eventually, people started to become concerned more about white pollution.

In 1991, experts from the packaging industry gathered for the first time to discuss strategies for recycling to alleviate the environmental hazard.

Later, the State Environmental Protection Administration advocated recycling when dealing with plastic waste.

But because Styrofoam was hard to collect and took up a lot space, and some companies began to produce eco-friendly single-use tableware, the government decided to adopt a drastic action against Styrofoam.

In 1999, the former State Economic and Trade Commission, China's top economic supervisor, declared that the production and use of disposable Styrofoam tableware would be no longer tolerated.

From that time on, dozens of cities, including Beijing, Tianjin, Nanjing, Hangzhou, Wuhan, Chengdu and Xi'an, have imposed local restrictions on the sale and use of Styrofoam tableware.

Six years after the ban, Li Peisheng, deputy director of Beijing Recycling Economy Research Institute, led an investigation team to research the current status of disposable tableware market. From June 1 and August 17 last year, the team visited 11 cities in Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Guangdong provinces, as well as Beijing and Shanghai.

"The ban, in a way, has promoted public awareness of environmental protection. But on the other hand, the production of Styrofoam actually cannot be banned and still contributes to a majority of one-off tableware market share," said Li.

Up to 70 per cent of the nearly 12 billion disposable snack boxes of various kinds are made of Styrofoam.

In Shanghai, the share exceeds 95 per cent.

"The total sales of plastic tableware have increased over the amount before the ban. Its low cost supports a strong demand among food suppliers in the market and makes it hard for the catering service people to give them up," said Li.

Stumbling eco-friendly tableware

In the wake of the dilemma over disposable packaging, alternatives have been encouraged.

The new packaging mainly applies natural or renewable raw materials and is engineered to be biodegradable.

Now four types of eco-friendly substitutes are available in the market, made from paperboard, rice husk, straw and starch respectively.

But Li's investigation team found that most of these enterprises are struggling to survive.

In Guangdong Province, 16 enterprises are producing eco-friendly tableware in 2000, but four years later, only five remained and the rest closed down owing to financial plight.

In 2002, the total sales number of eco-friendly tableware in the whole country was two-fifths that of Styrofoam's.

Generally it has been discovered that consumers and suppliers are reluctant to pay for biodegradable containers that cost several times more. Also, their mechanical properties, sanitary quality and temperature preservation ability are inferior to Styrofoam ones.

But most importantly, the biodegradable label may also be sending a misleading message. The products bearing the label are, in fact, just partially degradable within years, according to Tang Saizhen, senior engineer of China Light Industry Information Center and also a degradable plastics expert.

Some of these "new" products actually contain more water or oil-resistant substances, the latter of which are not easily degradable under natural conditions. Starch-type packaging, especially, will not rot away when packed into the garbage pile, because it only degrades in the sunshine.

"So if discarded everywhere, the so-called biodegradable tableware can also cause white pollution," said Tang.

At the same time, the quality of some degradable tableware is worrisome, she noted.

In order to save production cost in the ever-competitive market, some firms are adding more of the chemical product CaCo3 into their biodegradable containers, which can potentially contaminate food.

The production of eco-friendly substitutes can also be problematic. The process of producing paperboard tableware generates waste water and gas, which poses a more serious pollution to the environment than the waste products themselves, according to Tang.

"At present, Styrofoam tableware is still the best choice within the one-off packaging family, when concerning safety, quality, price and recycling as a whole," she argued.

However, Tang believes that the biodegradable alternatives should eventually replace Styrofoam when the new technologies clean up their production process and lower their costs.

Shanghai as role model

Besides further improving the quality of degradable one-off tableware, both Li and Tang pointed out that recycling and reprocessing used Styrofoam, rather than completely banning its production, is an important strategy to eliminate white pollution.

After the government issued the ban on Styrofoam tableware, only Shanghai took a moderate attitude toward it.

In addition to gradually cutting production of Styrofoam, the city required its producers and dealers to pay extra money, which is used to subsidize garbage collectors, reprocessing factory, relative management department and garbage transport.

Now in Shanghai, a comprehensive network has been established to collect the white pollution, which is then delivered to a reprocessing factory in Kunshan, Jiangsu Province, and a waste utilization centre in Putuo District.

More than 70 per cent of used plastic tableware has been recovered in the city.

Plastics experts previously believed Styrofoam tableware could not be recycled because it is susceptible to hard-to-clean grease stains.

"But now the technical difficulties have already been tackled. Also, the water used to clean the boxes can be recyclable," said Tang.

The plastics from used containers can produce plastic granules, which are used as raw materials for hard plastic products like rulers, buttons and cups.

Five years after the city issued the management guidelines on one-off tableware in 2000, its visual pollution to the city has been largely reduced.

When Li's investigation team went to local communities, they rarely saw the discarded one-off food containers.

"The successful story demonstrated that recycling and reprocessing is a good and feasible strategy to eliminate white pollution," said Li.

According to Tang, some Western countries had also once tried to ban the production of Styrofoam containers, but the idea turned out to be unrealistic. Enforced recycling proved to be a much better policy.

"Enhancing the recycling, supplemented by improving degradable packaging, should be the future direction of dealing with one-off tableware pollution," said Tang.

(China Daily 01/21/2006 page3)

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