The Long Battle Over “White Pollution”

In the past weeks, Chinese citizens have learned that the styrofoam boxes from which they eat their lunches will soon be legal. On February 16, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), China’s highest economic policy-making body, changed the Industrial Restructuring Catalog (2011) and removed disposable foam plastic tableware from the list of banned products. On May 1, the fourteen-year ban will be formally removed.

Ban? What Ban?

The fact that it had ever been illegal came as a surprise. Many Chinese did not know the widely prevalent tableware has in fact been banned since January 23, 1999, when the former State Economic and Trade Commission issued “Decree No. 6,” which placed styrofoam tableware on the list of products to be phased out. Formal prohibition of production followed in 2001. Despite the ban, styrofoam products accounted for 76% of the market for disposable tableware in 2011, up 23% from 2005. Annual sales are estimated at 15 billion RMB (about US$2.4 billion).

The recent lift of the longstanding ban has caused widespread public debate in new and traditional media, with environmental NGOs and experts stepping in to organize roundtable discussions between various stakeholders. The measure is widely perceived as a step backward, both because it sends the wrong environmental message and because of the opacity of the process that brought about the change. As China’s oldest NGO, Friends of Nature (@自然之友), wrote on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter:

Friends of Nature is of the opinion that the lift of the ban on styrofoam plastic goes against global trends of waste reduction. Moreover, the public has been kept out of the decision making process and there has been very little information released. The NDRC statement is overly general… we need an official explanation of how this fits with “green products.”

A History of the Ban That Wasn’t

The case has proved fruitful for China’s investigative journalists, with reporters canvassing neighborhoods asking restaurant owners and customers what products they are using, talking their way into factories by pretending to be interested buyers, interviewing experts, and digging into archives to provide the history of the measure.

Their research has revealed links between the ban and the highest levels of political leadership. Styrofoam tableware had been labeled as “white pollution” as early as 1995 and was banned on board China’s trains. But it was only in 1998 that things took a swift turn, when newly-appointed Premier Zhu Rongji visited the Three Gorges region and saw how mountains of styrofoam lunch boxes were blocking the power generating stations of the Yangtze river after a flooding. Zhu said, “White pollution should not last into the next century,” and called for rigorous measures. In 1999, an awareness campaign on the health hazards of using styrofoam tableware began. By that time, “pro-box” and “anti-box” (顶盒派 and 反盒派) interest groups had formed in close connection to the plastic and paper industries. The political call for action against styrofoam tipped the balance in the debate, resulting in the 1999 ban. At the time, Beijing had seven production sites for styrofoam plastic and ten recycling stations.

The results of the ban were unsatisfactory from the start. While production sites in the Chinese capital were closed, lax enforcement elsewhere created great difficulties for local governments, as industry simply moved underground. Talks to reverse the measure have been ongoing since 2005, with the well-organized China Plastics Processing Industry Association (CPPIA) regularly filing complaints. NDRC, however, has been very hesitant to make any changes. What made the difference this year was a consortium of ten Guangdong plastic producing companies represented by Beijing-based law firm JunZeJun. The consortium is reputed to have paid about 4.5 million RMB (about US$730,000) in lawyer fees to try to convince the central government to change its mind.

Their efforts paid off. A 2001 NDRC document states that “under high temperature, [styrofoam] easily releases substances that are bad for the human body; disposal at will will lead to serious environmental pollution and since it is not bio-degradable will pollute earth and water,” adding that recycling is extremely difficult. The NDRC’s most recent statement takes a different stance. It defends the material as “not poisonous, recyclable, and reusable” and gives five reasons why the ban can be safely lifted, including a wider environmental awareness among the Chinese public “which will prevent the tableware from being thrown on the streets,” the fact that many countries around the world still produce styrofoam, and the fact that it takes less oil to produce than does plastic.

Online, Confusion Reigns

This 180-degree turn has engendered confusion. Weibo user @长zai江湖from Shanghai summarized wider sentiment when he wrote:

“Fourteen years ago, they found a whole bunch of experts to prove that styrofoam plastic tableware was poisonous and bad for the environment, with the aim of proving that banning it was the reasonable and necessary thing to do. Now, they found another bunch of experts to prove that styrofoam plastic is in fact safe and cost-efficient.”

The arbitrariness of official arguments has fed general sentiment that it was the interests of the plastic-producing industry that triggered this change, rather than environmental or public health considerations. One user wrote, “Must be another case of ‘putting people first’ [quoting an official slogan].” Another, @Karen409, complained, “I don’t get it… even if scientific research now proves that there are no health risks, how does that mean that it is good for the environment? Why does China always choose to go by this ‘as long as it doesn’t kill people’ principle?”

The Likely Impact

Environmental experts agree that legalizing styrofoam tableware production theoretically opens the way to better recycling practices, as much now ends up in landfills. But this will not happen as automatically as the NDRC statement seems to suggest. Currently, there exists no infrastructure for this recycling— only one official recycling plant remains in all of China— providing little incentive for recyclers to take it on. A Beijing local small-scale recycling company notes online: “We haven’t had any notice that it will now become legal to recycle this, and as of now we’re not supposed to do it.” A veteran trash scavenger told Tea Leaf Nation, “I never waste my time on styrofoam plastic. You don’t get any money for that. Paper is much more profitable, and at least all recycling plants accept it.” Her comments fit with the results of this reporter’s Baidu search on lunch box prices, which shows paper boxes costing about five times as much as styrofoam boxes.

The styrofoam boxes may also be unsafe for their users. The safety of styrofoam is highly dependent on what original materials have been used in its production. Ominously, as Sina Finance reported this week, in China most styrofoam is made from trash—much of it imported from Western countries—rather than from new materials. As both experts and citizens point out, production processes in China tend to be opaque, and there are currently no official standards regulating inputs such as the amount of whitening products or other additives. Experts warn that styrofoam is unsafe under high temperatures. Worried by previous product safety scandals, Chinese citizens remain in the dark: @李清闲 asked, “So is it poisonous or not??” and @生活中的化学 queried, “Are we eating the food or the box?”

NDRC is currently merely taking the first step of lifting the ban. Thus far, nothing concrete has been released about building and strengthening recycling mechanisms or developing safety standards. Conditioned by past experiences and doubtful that anything will be announced before May 1, this regulatory gap prompts many to worry that the lift of the ban will result in a rise in “white pollution” and will only add to existing public health risks.

Trends in Chinese Rule-Making

Both the original ban and the lift of the ban are perceived to be in line with wider trends in Chinese rule-making. A frequently reposted Weibo post by @傅蔚冈, a Shanghai-based researcher, notes “the progress of industries” in making their voice heard, as opposed to the NDRC’s evident tendency to make and lift bans without much control over their enforcement. As @赵——宁 summarized: “China’s problem is supervision.”

The measure is also illustrative of relations between China’s central government and local authorities. As a Beijing-based interviewee notes, “Maybe the central government is only able to control enforcement in the capital. Here, I have noticed that styrofoam boxes are rare, and many fast-food places use paper boxes or even boxes with labels on them saying they are biodegradable and made from corn. I used to live in Wuhan and Chengdu, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen any [lunch boxes] apart from styrofoam there.”

Finally, the history of the ban exemplifies how policy change in China is often made, descending from the highest levels without public participation, resulting in superficial measures lacking structural implementation. The lack of concern within the central government for public debate was as true when the ban was imposed as it is now that it has been lifted. @董金狮, a food safety expert and one of the most outspoken critics of the lift on the ban, noted on Weibo that Friends of Nature helped organize a recent series of well-attended talks on the styrofoam box issue. A wide range of stakeholders appeared, including representatives from the China Plastics Association, but the NDRC did not show up.