Desert dump

Two high-profile incidents point to China’s environmental challenges


Growing mountains of trash

In 2017 Chinese President Xi Jinping cited “environmental clean-up” as one of the “three critical battles” his country had to fight.

Teams of inspectors fanned out around the country to catch polluters. But in Ningxia province they missed something – at least half a million tonnes of toxic black mulch dumped in a nature reserve in the Tengger Desert.

The waste came from a paper- making plant that opened in Zhongwei city in 1998. For the first six years of operations, Meili Paper simply dumped tanks of so-called “black liquor” on the edge of the desert. They tipped the slurry into open pits, waiting for most of it to evaporate, and then buried the solid waste in the sand.

The black liquor was made up of wood residues such as lignin and cellulose and the chemicals that helped to break these ingredients down. Seven tonnes of it was typically produced for every tonne of paper.

The plant then closed in 2015 and Meili – which is owned by a state-backed enterprise – reinvented itself as a ‘cloud computing’ brand. The share price of Meili Cloud – its latest incarnation – then plummeted on November 12 when the Ministry of Ecology and Environment named it as the polluter in the case.

Environmental regulators have accused the company of exploiting administrative ambiguities to get away with the dumping. Zhongwei sits near the provincial border with Inner Mongolia and Meili’s trucks drove 16 kilometres into an area of “unclear jurisdiction” to deposit the waste.

The ministry said more than 500,000 tonnes of solid residue had been removed from the site in recent weeks and that testing was underway for whether any of the chemicals had leached into the groundwater.

The ministry also hinted that it would be investigating local officials to see if they had colluded in the waste disposal scheme.

The Tengger Desert has been used as a dumping ground before – in 2012 and 2014 dozens of local factories were found to be pumping waste water into its sandy soil. China Securities News says problems like these are more commonplace in sparsely populated, poorer areas. In some cases, officials from these regions even make the case to companies that regulations ‘aren’t always enforced’ as a way of attracting investment.

The China Youth Daily said the clean-up in Meili’s case had already cost Rmb4 million ($568,000) and would take another couple of weeks to complete. “We will pay a heavy price for our history,” it quoted a company official as saying.

Meanwhile, in the neighbouring province of Shaanxi, one of China’s largest rubbish dumps has been closed after it reached capacity 25 years ahead of schedule.

Opened in 1994, Jiangcungou was supposed to accept 2,500 tonnes of waste a day. But in recent years that number had jumped to 10,000 tonnes a day.

China produces some 260 million tonnes of domestic waste a day – a total that has shot up with economic growth, plus the emergence of new sectors such as online shopping (Reuters reported this month that the e-commerce industry used more than 9.4 million tonnes of packaging last year, with Greenpeace forecasting 41.3 million tonnes of packaging waste by 2025 based on the current rate of increase).

Readers of WiC will know that Shanghai introduced more stringent waste sorting rules in July and almost 300 cities around the country are developing similar systems. Government policy is also moving away from landfills as its primary waste management tool and switching to more of a focus on incineration plants. In the meantime, the government has banned the import of a wide range of foreign waste that companies used to buy for its recycling value.

What will become of the shuttered rubbish dump at Jiangcungou? Somewhat counter-intuitively the authorities said it will eventually be turned into an eco park.

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