Outsourced pollution is a convenient effect of outsourced manufacturing. A paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last year found that once it was taken into account, developed countries’ apparent 2% reduction in carbon emissions between 1990 and 2008 turned into a 7% increase. 75% of these offshored emissions, researchers said, had been shifted to China. Similarly, China’s domination of the global rare earth supply is the product less of unrivalled mineral deposits than the convenience of letting China bear the considerable environmental burden of extraction and processing.
This sweeping continues within China. While the country’s population became mostly urban for the first time late last year, its pollution balance has tipped in the opposite direction, with the countryside now polluting more than the cities. In addition to agriculture and changing lifestyles, the shift has been fuelled by relocation of industry and waste to rural areas where environmental enforcement is often weaker, and local communities less able to resist. Caixin spoke to Tsinghua professor Li Dun about rural pollution with Chinese characteristics:
The environmental issues facing rural China differ from those facing developed countries and other developing nations. It is an environmental and ecological deterioration that has occurred in the wake of the collapse of the state monopoly of grain and the people’s commune system which left in place the hukou system and its legacy of official separation between rural and urban areas.
From this system sprung an unspoken yet not entirely unconscious arrangement: The countryside was where you could sweep under the rug all of the waste and heavy polluters from the shiny prosperous new cities.
Chemical and smelting enterprises that were originally located in the cities were prompted to relocate to rural areas. Any firm whose polluting activities caused public protest was relocated to more remote and less developed locales in rural areas where no complaints would be heard. Highly dangerous materials such chemicals, heavy metals and even radioactive waste were stockpiled in rural areas or just abandoned. Industrial waste was frequently sent to rural areas to be disassembled and dealt with, while conventional city waste also arrived to be disposed with in rural landfills.
Rugs are not effective long-term storage solutions. Use of the countryside as a dumping ground now undermines the food and water security of China as a whole, and Western outsourcers of pollution can also find it coming back to haunt them. A recent study in the Journal of Geophysical Research found that as much as 20% of California’s ground-level ozone originated in East Asia, and had been blown across the Pacific. Other pollutants ride cargo ships: at The Diplomat, Greenpeace’s Monica Tan describes the reshoring of hormone-disrupting nonylphenol (NP) used in the Chinese textile industry:
The use of NP in clothing manufacturing has effectively been banned within the EU, with similar restrictions also in place in the United States and Canada. Of course, this is hardly the first time multinational companies have taken advantage of lax standards in other countries. Exporting the manufacturing industry hasn’t been accompanied by the export of high environmental protection standards, and has led to a host of pollution problems in China, most pressingly water pollution. Ask any local, it seems, and it’s hard to find a river clean enough to swim in in this country ….
In the latest toxics report to be commissioned by Greenpeace, simulations of standard domestic laundering on 14 clothing samples found that a single wash can wash out a substantial amount of the nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPE) residues present within textile products. More than 80 percent were washed out for half of the plain fabric samples tested. This suggests that all residues of NPEs within textile products will be washed out over their lifetime, and that in many cases this will have occurred after just the first few washes ….
In short, brands are making their consumers unsuspecting accomplices in the release of these hazardous substances into public water supplies. And, let’s not forget, we’re talking about a substance that has been effectively banned or heavily restricted in the EU, United States and Canada.