In Britain, Dumped In China
By Clifford Coonan
27 January, 2007
of foul-smelling waste stand rotting in the cold air. The dark, smog-choked
sky lowers menacingly and the river runs slowly, a black tide of toxic
sludge. Sandwich boxes carrying the labels of British supermarket chains
poke through the dumps; crumpled pizza wrappers and plastic bags blanket
the streets. Working in the middle of it all are children, some as young
as four, sifting though the waste with their bare hands.
Lianjiao, a remote Chinese
village in the booming southern province of Guangdong, is a long way
for a plastic bag to travel; but it is where almost all British supermarket
carrier bags end up. And the foil-lined crisp packets. And the triangular
hard plastic packaging for your bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches
from a top high-street chain. Because China is rapidly becoming Britain's
biggest rubbish dump.
Regardless of how carefully
you separate your waste, there is a good chance a disposal firm will
dump it all in together with other kinds of plastic trash and ship it
to the developing world to be dealt with by a family of migrant workers
earning a pittance. They will deal with the salad-bar container, the
pistachio ice-cream container and the superfluous bag for carrots in
your shopping basket in a variety of different ways - it may be recycled,
it may become landfill or it may simply be burnt. Whatever happens,
it is generally not a priority for the waste disposal company. Britain
dumps around two million tonnes of waste in China every year, everything
from plastic mineral water bottles to shopping bags and other forms
of superfluous packaging from some of the country's biggest supermarkets.
A huge amount of it arrives
in 10-ton shipments in Lianjiao, a village which has become a centre
for processing plastic waste - much of it from Britain. The high levels
of pollution in the nearby river and the poisoned sky are the price
of waste disposal in the developing world.
So too are the many and varied
health complaints suffered by the local population, who risk multiple
skin ailments and exposure to potent carcinogens as they touch the contaminated
materials. Poisonous chemical effluents stream into their water supply,
turning it black or lurid red, and studies by Greenpeace show that acid
rain is the norm in this region. Children are prone to fevers and coughs.
Their skin is often disfigured by the toxic plastic waste they have
They are victims of Britain's
addiction to excessive packaging, highlighted in this newspaper's Campaign
According to figures from
China's environmental watchdog, the village handles more than 200,000
tonnes of plastic a year, a big chunk of it imported illegally. "China
strictly bans any imports of waste that cannot be recycled as raw materials
or be treated harmlessly in the country," according to the State
Environmental Protection Administration (Sepa). " Driven by profits,
some dealers collaborate with overseas law breakers and illegally smuggle
or import rubbish into China, causing damage to people's health and
to the environment."
In Lianjiao, plastic sandwich
wrappers from British high-street shops are sprayed with chemicals to
remove the food debris and then hosed down, the effluent running into
the Pearl river, one of the world's most polluted waterways. A large
proportion of the plastic waste - that which is not fit for recycling
- is burnt in incinerators or kilns, or melted down in acid baths. The
air is filled with heady toxic smoke.
The local government has
banned unlicensed firms from the plastic-waste business and halted the
operation of plastic-waste processing factories that are not equipped
with environmental protection facilities.
"But, driven by immediate
interests, some local people still try to introduce polluting material
into China, posing a threat to the environment and to public health,"
Sepa is negotiating with
European Union agencies on finding ways to stop cross-border movements
of waste and preventing illegal domestic-waste smuggling. The watchdog
called on developed countries to respect the terms of the 1989 Basel
Convention, which bans the export of toxic rubbish from developed countries
to the Third World. The US has not signed up to the agreement, but the
UK and other European countries have.
According to Chinese figures,
rubbish imports from abroad have grown steadily in the past decade and
70 per cent of toxic plastic produced around the world each year now
finds its way illegally into China. Ninety per cent of this waste is
broken down in small workshops like those in Lianjiao.
"According to our understanding,
a lot of waste is coming from Britain and other places in Europe,"
says an official. "This damages health all right, but a lot of
the workers here are migrant workers who come from even poorer provinces,
so it's a sacrifice they are prepared to make." Some of these workers
earn little more than £1.50 a day for treating the materials.
No company in Lianjiao has
official approval to import waste. There is awareness of the problem
at the highest level of government and top environmental agencies have
pledged to resolve the issue, but local corruption and the lure of a
quick couple of pounds per tonne of rubbish makes it difficult to enforce
A report by the University
of Shantou on the town of Guiyu, another Guangdong recycling hub, showed
that more than 80 per cent of local children suffer from lead poisoning.
Among the plastic at Lianjiao
was the wrapping for a pack of Cathedral City cheddar, one of Britain's
best-selling brands of cheese. Dairy Crest, which makes the cheese but
has no control over what happens to its packaging, confirmed last night
the wrapping was non-recyclable.
The company said in a statement:
"The food safety laws and our commitment to maintain quality and
taste require Cathedral City's packaging to be laminated to act as an
oxygen barrier. Therefore, the current packaging is non-recyclable.
However, we are aggressively investigating the latest technology to
see if it is possible to recycle the packaging in the future."
© 2006 Independent News
and Media Limited
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