China’s extraordinary economic growth has occurred alongside some well-documented and globally reported environmental struggles. Industrial pollution has decreased the air quality. Waterways are increasingly polluted by sediment and contaminant runoff from expanding mining, agriculture, and urban development. The incredible pace of infrastructure creation (railways, roads, housing, power conveyance, etc.) has led to significant erosion problems. China, in short, has grown faster than its environmental regulations.
This is not unique to China. Most countries in times of faster development experience the same pains.
What many outside of China might not know, however, is that China’s environmental regulations are evolving rapidly. As a country that is growing as quickly as it is, China needs to get it right, and right now. The waste management field is one place in which this evolution is on display.
In January, I took my first trip to China for an electrical liner integrity (ELI) survey project at a landfill. We spent the entire first day trying to procure materials for the project. I’m used to just being able to drive to a big box store, like Home Depot, to purchase everything, but here near Shanghai it was an adventure that strained my jetlagged nerves. My colleagues from our office in Suzhou (a city in Jiangsu Province located just outside of Shanghai Municipality) took me to a street dotted with tiny box-like stores, each of which was stuffed to the roof with seemingly random tools and materials. There were so many little bins and boxes that what you were looking for had to be there… somewhere. There was a system, but it wasn’t apparent at first glance. With each request we submitted, we looked through catalogs and negotiated. Negotiation is an incredibly important part of business in China, and that can include even seemingly simple shopping trips. When we settled on the item we wanted, a fellow would speed off on a moped, presumably combing the street for other stores that might have what we wanted. He would then return with the correct item … at least 50% of the time. When it wasn’t right, he would make another attempt.
We didn’t find everything we wanted, but what we did find was close enough….
All I kept thinking was “Will someone please open a Home Depot in China?”, but then the Chinese reality sets in. People don’t drive around in SUVs, and they certainly don’t spend their weekends as do-it-yourselfers. They’re not going to roll out a lawn in front of their government-owned apartment buildings, or renovate a bathroom that doesn’t really belong to them. It just doesn’t happen. Labor rates are very low–and, when you come from outside that context, you have to remember that if you are to begin to understand their systems. If you need something fixed, you call someone to fix it and let him deal with the details. It may take three times as long as the same task where you live or primarily work, but it also will probably be just a fraction of the cost.
China’s rapid development, growing middle class, and increased personal consumption rates has led to a strong need for modernization in the country’s waste management infrastructure and affiliated environmental protection.
I found myself in China because the interest in post-construction ELI surveys is skyrocketing. There is a regulation in China (CJJ113-2007) that requires some form of liner integrity testing across 100% of the geomembrane at all sanitary landfill expansions. ELI surveys are currently the only method that can satisfy this requirement. In the US, where waste management is consistently the top-rated sector of infrastructure (See ASCE’s Report Card on American Infrastructure), only the state of New York has officially taken this leap forward; China, however, with the world’s largest population and the third largest land area within its borders, is implementing this regulation country-wide.
The other side to that story is that China does not have a good track record with actually enforcing regulations. The logical progression of a regulation is its enforcement, but China is an enormous country and has only recently adopted the type of regulatory frameworks that developed nations tend to utilize. So when it comes to regulation and enforcement, it’s not so black and white in China; it comes in a myriad of gray, and it changes with every negotiation.
However, if you are a foreign company operating a landfill in China, you better be sure that you follow all the regulations to the “T,” or you may be at risk for being kicked out of the country by the government. This is exactly the situation that brought me to China: a foreign-owned and operated landfill that is making the full effort to meet or exceed all standards and regulations.
Make no mistake about it: it is very difficult to perform work in China without being Chinese or having native speakers and employees on the ground there. There are whole dimensions of Chinese subtlety that completely escapes the perceptions of those who come from different cultural contexts. It isn’t just language. There is a whole system of culture and history interwoven with superstition and legend that colors the collective understanding of the world. For example, when we checked into our hotel, my Chinese colleague and I were sent to the fifth floor. My room card simply had my room number on it, but my colleague’s had the number 8 preceding his. When I asked why, I was told that eight is a lucky number because the pronunciation of the word for “eight” sounds like the word for “rich” in one of the primary dialects.
Whether or not one can fully understand or appreciate Chinese culture, particularly when you are working or living in it as a visitor, China’s business and regulatory communities are reaching into the wider world for expertise, particularly with regard to environmental issues and policies. For example, a U.S.-China Partnership for Environmental Law was founded in 2006 to further the work of governmental and private organizations that address critical environmental and energy challenges; improve policy, law and regulation; and develop sustainable best practices in environmental protection and energy regulation. How is the program doing? Adam Moser of the Vermont Law School has his feet on the ground in Beijing. He has seen some major change taking place within the government and judicial bodies in China since the inception of the program. Today there are about 90 environmental courts, while three years ago there were almost none. Some of the colossal challenges he faces includes the fact that companies don’t get punished for misrepresenting data, such as emissions and discharge data. Misrepresenting data can result in personal criminal charges in the United States, but not so in China. Although he keeps an amazingly positive attitude about his work, Adam is not sure if China has enough time to reverse their path of environmental degradation, which he compares to trying to change the direction of an enormous tanker at sea. Even if China were to cut and paste U.S. regulations and start enforcing them within 10 years, it is not enough to get the country on a track to sustainability.
Increasing urban density and a lack of amenities (such as washers and driers) being fully available to or affordable by the average person in China can shock someone coming in from the outside. Many people, for example, wash clothes and dishes in or with canal water in which they might dispose of organic waste, such as food scraps. So while the waste management industry in China begins implementing stringent environmental protection standards across the board, on the local level a lack of available resources in households and the lack of waste collection and conveyance systems means that very landfills are not being utilized as they should, especially in mainland China where a population the size of the United States subsists on $2.00 to $2.50 per day. In cities like Shanghai, garbage trucks routinely sweep away the refuse that is commonly left behind, as was the habit of Americans in the 1960s before public outreach campaigns. In centuries past, garbage would have consisted mainly of organics, which can biodegrade rapidly. With a growing consumer culture along with ubiquitous manufactured products and plastic packaging, the landscape of rural China has been changing.
Why do we care? Because China’s problem is our problem. Look at every object in your home. How much of it is made in China? The factories belching out the air pollution hovering over every major Chinese city are making all of the contraptions that you can’t live without. Every time we throw out an old computer or cell phone, where does it go? As reported in a March 2002 Time magazine article (http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,214146,00.html), the city of Guiyu, China dismantles 1.5 million pounds of junked computers, cell phones and other devises each year. Almost 80% of the discarded electronics comes from overseas, including from the United States. Much of the waste from the work is dumped into the city’s streams and canals, poisoning the wells and groundwater. It is far cheaper to break down e-waste in China than it is in the developing world, where companies must follow strict health standards and environmental regulations.
China is inextricably partnered with the world, and it’s a partnership that directly affects our shared planet’s health. But despite the well-documented pollution issues which might make one shake her head and ask, “How can they let it happen?”, we must remember that all nations have their share of jointly-created environmental problems. In China, they have only responded to the world-wide demand for cheap stuff, which has pushed many of this vast country’s cities and towns into cheaper environmental control or neglecting the environment in order to serve business first.
A continued interest and involvement in what is going on in China and an inexhaustible enthusiasm for helping the nation get it right, may be the impetus for change. After a 2011 Greenpeace campaign exposed the trail of toxic chemicals from our designer brand name apparel to factories in China, companies such as Nike, Adidas and Puma made a pledge to clean up their supply chain. Change can happen; it just may not happen as quickly as we would like, or as quickly as it needs to happen.
The first steps were paved by others before me, but right now I have one foot in China with technology that can help reverse the direction of the downward spiral of environmental degradation. No one can do it alone; it takes small steps by many people sharing a common spark, the resolve that everyone deserve the right to the pursuit of happiness without being slowly poisoned by their environment. Programs like the U.S.-China Partnership for Environmental Law show that it can happen. What happens next is up to everyone with a dollar bill, euro, real or yen in their pocket.