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Overseas Rubbish Threat Looms Large
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A UK media report claiming that Britain dumps 1.9 million tons of garbage in China every year has placed the spotlight on China's booming rubbish import industry and the harmful influence it has on the environment.


Quoting official figures in Britain, the Sunday Mirror newspaper reported that in 1997 the UK sent 12,000 tons of paper, plastics and metals to China. That figure rocketed 158-fold in the eight years to 2005.


"Campaigners fear vast amounts of the waste, including potentially lethal chemicals, are ending up in illegal landfill sites instead of being recycled," the story said.


Waste paper accounted for about 1.5 million of the 1.9 million tons of rubbish sent to China. The remainder was composed of plastics and metals including copper, nickel, aluminium, zinc, lead, tin and tungsten. These materials could poison water supplies if they leaked, the story said.


However, the story showed only one part of the jigsaw puzzle.


The Report on Status and Trend of Solid Waste in China, which was released last year by the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development, an office under the country's top environmental administration, showed that rubbish imports have grown steadily since 1996 when the country completed legislation on the practice.


After 2001 rubbish imports exceeded 20 million tons every year. In 2004 the volume reached 33 million tons.


"The imports fill the gap between raw material shortages and increasing demand," said Li Jinhui, a professor at Tsinghua University's Department of Environmental Science and Engineering.


"The imported rubbish is allowed to contain certain amounts of chemical substances or hazardous materials according to regulations," Li said. "But the influence on the environment cannot be neglected, let alone the smuggling of waste into China."


According to the government's report, 70 percent of the electronic waste produced around the world every year illegally finds its way into China and 90 percent of such waste is broken down in small workshops. Because they tend to employ very basic technology, large amounts of dangerous materials end up getting released into the environment. The town of Guiyu in south China's Guangdong Province is representative of the situation.


Lured by the prospect of immediate economic gains by the opportunity to extract 450 grams of gold and 1,300 grams of copper from 1 ton of electronic boards, many town residents have become involved in recycling. This has earned Guiyu the distinction of being one of the world's electronic waste terminals.


Environmental inspections have shown that the town has no potable water. More than 80 percent of the town's children are suffering from lead poisoning, and the cancer rate is above normal.


The government report warned that because of the electronic waste smuggling these small-scale workshops had spread into central China in recent years.


It’s been estimated that the amount of hazardous waste in China would overtake the country's environmental capacity by 2020 resulting in severe secondary pollution.


(China Daily January 23, 2007)

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