Events

Hazardous Waste Challenges in Greater China

June 26, 2002 // 12:00am
Event Co-sponsors: 
Environmental Change and Security Program

Speakers: Gao Nianping, Hunan Association of Environmental Protection Industry; Pang Kin-hing, Hong Kong Environmental Protection Department; Wu Tung-jye, Green Formosa Front

Additional Members of Study Group: Yang Yang, Green Stone (Nanjing); Su Qingping, Chengdu Hazardous Waste Transfer Center (Chengdu); Wong Wai-yin (Lawrence), Enviropace Limited (Hong Kong); Yang Kai-hsing, Committee of Soil and Groundwater Remediation Fund (Taipei); Zhang Yinglin, Heilongjiang Environmental Protection Bureau (Harbin)

By Timothy Hildebrandt and Jennifer L. Turner

The people in Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan face common environmental problems that stem, in part, from rapid economic development. While air and water pollution are the issues receiving the most attention, perhaps one of the most pressing pollution problems in Greater China is one that transcends the present day—hazardous waste. Hazardous waste must be dealt with on three planes, uncovering past pollutants, cleaning present waste, and avoiding future problems. Brought together by the National Committee on United States-China Relations, a group of eight experts intimately involved in hazardous waste issues in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Mainland China embarked on a study tour of the United States (June 24-July 4) in an effort to observe new methods and lessons learned from their American colleagues. At a 26 June 2002 meeting at the Wilson Center, three of the study group members shared their work experience with hazardous waste while the remaining guests provided a brief synopsis of their views. The study group offered a unique collection of perspectives on hazardous waste issues, for the members were from government, business, and nongovernmental sectors. Although Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan are at different stages of dealing with hazardous wastes, there appears to be common recognition of the growing dangers of uncontrolled hazardous waste production, transfer, and disposal.

All three areas of Greater China have promoted hazardous waste disposal and tracking legislation. Because of limited land space on Taiwan, incinerators—that often are used to generate energy—have been the predominant disposal method of hazardous waste. While Mainland China has the land space, most provinces have balked at opening hazardous waste facilities. Hong Kong is unique in Greater China in that the government has made considerable investments into developing integrated waste management facilities. While environmental nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Hong Kong do stage protests against environmentally damaging projects, overall Hong Kong green groups tend to have a productive working relationship with the government. Conversely, Taiwan green groups appear much more outspoken and more inclined to act as watchdogs of government and industry hazardous waste disposal regulations and facilities than their Hong Kong or Mainland Chinese counterparts. However, in Mainland China, some NGOs are focusing on educating the public on the dangers of such waste and working to encourage the Chinese State Environmental Protection Administration to permit public access to data on industry waste production and hazardous waste sites. All of the study group members indicated a strong willingness to accept guidance and assistance from countries with greater experience in dealing with hazardous waste problems and all agreed on the importance of increasing education and public awareness of hazardous waste issues.

Mainland China: The Business of Cleaning
Experts dealing with hazardous waste in Mainland China speaking at the meeting were candid about being somewhat behind their Hong Kong and Taiwanese counterparts in the policy and technology spheres. Gao Nianping, Secretary General of the Hunan Association of Environmental Protection Industry (affiliated with the Hunan government Environmental Protection Bureau) provided an introduction to environmental protection industries (EPI), which have become major players in China's efforts to deal with environmental issues generally, and hazardous waste specifically. Chinese EPIs focus on two kinds of service: (1) providing government agencies with consultants and implementation methods, and (2) serving industries with technical assistance and information regarding safe and responsible disposal and eco-friendly business practices. The expertise of Chinese EPIs not only covers a range of hazardous waste issues, but many also specialize in ecological protection and green production.

Similar to other developing and transition economies, in Mainland China the ability to strengthen environmental protection policies and industries is dependent upon continued economic growth. Countering the fears of many local governments that environmental protection will threaten economic development, Mr. Gao argued that EPIs could serve as a "leverage point" for China's economic growth. Indeed, Chinese EPIs have become a cottage industry. In less than a decade, EPIs have ballooned in number to almost 10,000 enterprises nationwide, accounting for well over 40 billion yuan in production. In Hunan province alone, Gao estimated that the 100 enterprises currently producing two billion yuan annually should reach five billion in only three years.

Mr. Gao noted that, while many EPIs are doing a great amount of business in China, they only have scratched the surface in improving environmental quality; only ten percent of Chinese cities have sufficient waste treatment facilities, leaving much room for EPIs to provide the service. Since the viability of EPIs is very much dependent upon private financing, the central and local governments in China have been encouraging outside investment. Similar to many other provinces in China, the Hunan government has moved to reduce the taxes for companies engaged in environmental protection services. In Hunan's capital Changsha, for example, city officials have created a 15 square kilometer zone dubbed the "EPI Industrial Park" to attract Chinese and foreign investors.

A hazardous waste EPI created three years ago in Chengdu illustrates the success of such new industries. Su Qingping the General Manager of the Chengdu Hazardous Waste Transfer Center explained that since EPIs such as his are a relatively new form of industry in China, he knew strong support from the local government would be critical for the center to successfully manage hazardous wastes. After two years of striving for governmental backing, the Chengdu city government has become a very robust supporter of the Chengdu Hazardous Waste Transfer Center. For example, the city government helps regulate illegal hazardous waste treatment businesses, offers the center tax exemptions and financial assistance, and most importantly, the government authorizes the center to deal with the hazardous waste in Chengdu without interfering with its internal decision-making. The combination of government support and strong management independence has made the center highly productive. Currently the center is expanding its work by constructing a large-scale hazardous waste treatment center, which will be complete by 2005. Once complete, this new facility will be able to treat 100,000 of the 140,000 tons of hazardous waste generated annually in Chengdu.

Although Gao and Su stressed the crucial role private enterprises play in dealing with China's hazardous waste problems, they also underscored the importance of education and public awareness, a position echoed by Yang Yang, a representative from Green Stone, a Nanjing-based organization that acts as a liaison and information clearinghouse for a network of green student groups and individuals from over 20 universities in Jiangsu province. Green Stone also communicates with foreign NGOs and international foundations for technical and financial support for its network. Since NGOs are a relatively new development in China and lack experience in advocacy, Chinese environmental groups are rather limited in the work that they can perform. Many Mainland green groups can, however, put their energy into public education to raise awareness of hazardous waste and general conservation issues. Green Stone has been active in such work and also has conducted a survey on pollution of the Yangtze River and helped establish battery disposal treatment centers in Nanjing. According to Ms. Yang, the two greatest challenges for hazardous waste problems in China are: (1) growing consumerism—with higher salaries and a growing population, consumption trends are quickly rising, making the fight against waste an even more difficult task; and (2) lack of information—though the government has a wealth of information and many statistics on hazardous waste producers and trends, the public generally can not access this information easily.

Taiwan: The Influence of Activism
Unlike their counterparts in Mainland China, Taiwanese NGOs have gone beyond just instituting education campaigns. Wu Tung-jye was the speaker from one of Taiwan's most active grassroots environmental NGOs—Green Formosa Front (GFF), which is devoted to advocating social and corporate responsibility through introducing environmentally friendly legislation, holding public hearings, and calling for the punishment of major polluters. Founded in 1997, GFF has focused its energy on four major areas: (1) curbing hazardous waste, (2) supporting seacoast conservation, (3) encouraging pesticide-free agricultural development, and (4) promoting community involvement in environmental issues.

While most Taiwanese NGOs limit their work to local issues, GFF undertakes domestic and international activism, striving to make Taiwanese corporations environmentally responsible not just in Taiwan but in other countries as well. Mr. Wu presented slides of GFF's most well-known instance of international activism, the case of the Formosa Plastic Corporation. In 1998, the corporation sent 3,000 tons of mercury-laced toxic waste to Cambodia for disposal. The waste arrived in plastic bags at the Cambodian port city of Sihanoukville at the end of November 1998, misleadingly labeled as "polyester chip" and "cement cake." Within days villagers began to scavenge through the waste taking plastic bags to use as mats and tarps. The subsequent deaths of some people who had come in contact with the waste horrified villagers near the dumping grounds; riots and hysteria quickly broke out, leading to even more fatalities. GFF worked both in Taiwan and Cambodia, making the public aware of the dumping, holding public protests, and helping to bring Formosa Plastic Corporation to court.

The mercury dumping case has had far-reaching effects in Taiwan—it was in fact, according to Yang Kai-hsing of the Taiwan Environmental Protection Administration (TEPA), a turning point for environmental policy in Taiwan. In order to more effectively deal with waste problems, TEPA recently created a special department to focus on recycling and established the Committee of Soil and Groundwater Remediation Fund. This remediation fund will provide funding to support the clean up of hazardous waste sites, similar to the U.S. Superfund.

Mr. Yang noted that the relationship between NGOs and the Taiwanese government is both antagonistic and cooperative. In the 1980s and early 1990s, NGOs tended to mistrust and question the government's policies and commitment to the environment. However, as Taiwan has become more democratic the government increasingly has solicited input on new environmental policies through panel discussions and seminars, which include NGO activists.

While NGO participation in dialogues with TEPA has enabled them to indirectly affect policy, NGOs and community organizations have periodically been successful in pressuring for quick government change in times of crises. For example, after a major oil spill by a Greek tanker off the coast of southern Taiwan, TEPA's response was perceived as slow and inadequate, which sparked protests and negative news reporting. This public pressure triggered some high-level political infighting that led the head administrator of TEPA to step down. As an example of cooperative relations, Mr. Yang explained how NGOs have alerted TEPA to new problems and frequently have offered useful and innovative suggestions. By increasing public participation in the policymaking process the government is proving that they share the NGO activists' goals to protect Taiwan's environment, which has made the relationship between NGOs and the government less antagonistic.

While his committee's work focuses on cleaning up current hazardous waste sites, Mr. Yang stressed the need to develop more effective means of disposing and reducing industrial and domestic hazardous waste. Mr. Yang highlighted some of the more proactive Taiwanese policies to deal with these issues:

  • In July 2002, a major policy initiative came into effect prohibiting many plastic bags and polyethylene products;
  • The Taiwanese government is in the early stages of researching ways to turn waste more safely into energy (Taiwan already has 21 incinerators with imported technologies that can transform the heat into electricity); and,
  • To deal with serious problems of illegal dumping of hazardous waste, TEPA has set up a management system in which manufacturers must report (online) the process of manufacturing their products, the amount of hazardous materials generated during that process, and methods of dealing with the hazardous waste.

    Hong Kong: Leading the Charge
    Due to its smaller size and strong economy Hong Kong has the most developed system for dealing with hazardous waste within Greater China. Admittedly, Hong Kong is not burdened with as much hazardous waste as Mainland China and Taiwan, for example when government officials began to deal with Hong Kong's waste problems in the late 1980s, manufacturing industries, the main contributor of harmful waste, made up only 15 percent of the city's GDP (now, just under 10 percent due to industries moving across the border to Guangdong province). Pang Kin-hing of the Hong Kong Environmental Protection Department noted in addition to the decreasing numbers of manufacturers, Hong Kong has no petrol-chemical industries, usually the most prolific of hazardous waste polluters. Nonetheless, because light industrial, commercial, and residential buildings are often close together, waste control issues are very important in Hong Kong.

    Hong Kong's approach to dealing with hazardous waste is nearly two decades in the making and the government followed the lead of the United States and European countries in designing a three-pronged approach: (1) promulgating legislation, (2) creating enforcement mechanisms, and (3) constructing treatment facilities. The first step in reducing hazardous waste in Hong Kong was to pass significant, meaningful legislation, the core components of which are:

  • Required registration of all chemical waste producers;
  • Licensing and training of chemical waste collectors; and,
  • Monitoring of waste transportation.

    Perhaps even more important than legislation has been enforcement that gives these laws real teeth—after a time-consuming process, the Hong Kong government successfully installed an enforcement team, charged with the task of enforcing proper labeling, storage and discharges regulations. To deal with the newly collected hazardous wastes, it was imperative to build a state-of-the-art treatment facility. Mr. Pang described the highly technical, detailed treatment and monitoring facility to an impressed audience. Commissioned in 1993, the integrated treatment facility employs U.S. Environmental Protection Agency methods for testing and conducts monthly monitoring of dioxin. In an effort to enhance transparency and reassure the public, the facility provides all recent testing figures on the department's Web page (www.info.gov.hk/epd).

    While the Hong Kong government owns the centralized hazardous waste processing facility a private company—Enviropace Limited, operates it. Wong Wai-yin (Lawrence), a quality assurance and engineering manager at Enviropace, reiterated Mr. Pang's points on the success of Hong Kong's hazardous waste management—even suggesting that the Hong Kong facility might more effectively deal with some of Mainland China's hazardous waste. Enviropace already has been assisting some Mainland Chinese cities with developing hazardous waste processing facilities.

    Due to efficient waste management and the decrease in hazardous waste generation in Hong Kong, Mr. Wong claimed that many NGOs have moved away from hazardous waste issues. Instead Hong Kong NGOs have focused their work on air and water pollution, the truly "hot" issues in the region. While not viewed as a major threat, dealing with hazardous waste in Hong Kong contains some challenges. In particular, Mr. Wong cited the challenge of balancing ecological protection and economic development as the city's economy slows. For example, recently during the reclamation project to build the new Disneyland site at Penny's Bay a significant amount of dioxins that could contaminate the water were found. While the Hong Kong government views this Disney project as key in attracting tourist dollars and stimulating the economy, steps must be taken to contain these wastes. This case exemplifies how the Hong Kong government struggles with maintaining the interests of new businesses while upholding its commitment to reducing hazardous waste.

    Future Steps
    Because of its booming economy, increasing energy and production demands, and underdeveloped waste management capability, Mainland China's future hazardous waste challenges are perhaps the biggest within Greater China. One of the main roadblocks for the Chinese remains the financing of clean technology and treatment of hazardous waste. Gao Nianping explained that while the principle "whoever pollutes, pays" is central to Chinese industrial pollution control policies, admittedly, some enterprises, particularly older industries, in Mainland China have struggled to comply. Mr. Gao emphasized that the Chinese government is not allowing pollution violators to flagrantly evade fines. In Chengdu, for example, the government has shut down 1,369 factories that were out of compliance with pollution emission standards. Mr. Gao assured the audience that enforcement is blind to government ownership and state-owned enterprise were not exempt from these regulations.

    In Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, future hopes for resolving hazardous waste issues are beginning to rest in the laps of the private sector and the international community. In addition to domestic environmental protection industries, Mainland China is setting its sights on foreign assistance. Zhang Yinglin of the Heilongjiang Environmental Protection Bureau in Harbin echoed Gao Nianping's call for international support of China's hazardous waste efforts, including investment and technology transfer. Hong Kong companies like Enviropace have employed their strategies for waste management in Mainland China, including a joint venture with the Tianjin government and operating waste energy sites in Guangzhou. Though well advanced in its efforts to eliminate hazardous waste, the Hong Kong government still is open to improving its waste situation through adopting new technologies from abroad. In Taiwan the government is also encouraging more private sector investment into waste disposal businesses as a means to stem the illegal dumping of hazardous wastes.
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