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Made in Britain, dumped in China
How our waste causes death and disease 6,000 miles from home
By Clifford Coonan in Beijing
Published: 26 January 2007
Mounds 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 to process.
They are victims of Britain's addiction to excessive packaging, highlighted in this newspaper's Campaign Against Waste.
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 says.
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 rules.
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 found by this correspondent 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."