Resumption of Hostilities: The Scrap is Back! [Updated]

[UPDATED: Not sure how I did it, but somehow I managed to delete this entire post – including the comments – earlier this morning. Thanks to the generous help of an anonymous citizen at NFG World (who read my tweeted cry for help!), the full post has been restored – minus the half-dozen comments that readers had left behind over the last 12 hours or so (sorry about that).]

Back in June, before I placed Shanghai Scrap on a needed hiatus while I dealt with several issues located outside of China, Shanghai Scrap visited – and documented – a northern Chinese plywood factory. Among other notable features of that infernal facility, was the acknowledged news that the several hundred migrant laborers who work within it can expected to contract a fatal illness – most likely, cancer – within two to three years of employment (the full post, with photos, can be found here). That facility is one of many, many dozens of similar plywood facilities in that northern Chinese region, all of which have similar issues. There’s no epidemiological data for this plywood manufacturing region (and the local government would never allow it, anyway), so it’s hard to say what – exactly – is killing workers there. Most likely, though, high concentrations of formaldehyde are the problem (my eyes became inflamed in the plant – a symptom common to people over-exposed to formaldehyde).

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With me during that visit were two academics – an American and a Chinese – and we left the area with the same question: “What can we do?” No surprise, many of the comments to my blog post relating that visit asked the same question. There are no simple answers: the local and provincial governments are supporters of the industry; the attention of environmental groups will only serve to push the industry elsewhere (within China).

So it came as some surprise when – a few days ago – I learned that one of my home state US Senators, Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar, late last week introduced legislation strictly regulating the use of formaldehyde in plywood and other composite wood products. Chinese plywood producers aren’t the target of the legislation, but – if passed they’ll be impacted by it: by some accounts, upwards of 50% of the US’s plywood comes from Chinese factories, and the legislation instructs Customs agents to certify that material meets the same standard as more expensive US-produced plywood (a trade barrier that I can get behind!). The factory that I visited (one of the largest in China) doesn’t supply to the US, but plenty of others do. If they want to continue supplying the US market, they’ll need to improve their products – and, by extension, eliminate the processes and materials that are killing their workers. Good for Klobuchar.

And, let’s face it, not so good for China. Until Chinese regulators demand similar protections for consumers of plywood in China (meaning, just about everyone in China), factories such as the one that I visited will continue killing young migrants.

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Matt Armstrong has a very interesting, very provocative essay at FP.com that looks at the US State Department’s epidemic of ineptitude – especially in public diplomacy:

The report on the Africa bureau noted that in 2002, public affairs and public diplomacy was a “failed office” — and that the situation is worse in 2009. Public outreach workers said the bureau’s leadership “does not understand public diplomacy.” The sentiment is widespread. A 2008 report by a congressional ombudsman, the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, described a systemic failure to support and train public diplomacy officers in the field, as well as professional discrimination against those in the career track.

This rang true to me, and it should ring true for any reporter – and/or human being – with the misfortune of trying to obtain information about the still shrouded-in-secrecy US pavilion for Expo 2010. Indeed, far from enhancing the US image, the ham-handed US effort – until quite recently – served merely to antagonize Chinese officials and harm the US image in China.

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Speaking of the US pavilion at Expo 2010 … if, like me, you’ve tried to get basic information about the structure – say, who the donors are, what they’ve given, and whether any conflict-of-interest rules apply to the government-designated fund-raising team – you’ve likely found yourself in need of a drink (because neither the State Department nor its designated pavilion group is willing to speak to such issues). That’s never a good feeling, but at least – as of a day or two ago – you’ll be able to pour that drink in an official US pavilion shot glass, beer glass, cordial glass, “rocks glass” or US$124 crystal decanter (careful: it’s leaded).

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The world’s journalists never seem to get tired of writing about south China’s e-waste processing centers – in particular, Guiyu – and they shouldn’t. But these reports are, by necessity, qualitative assessments of a literally ugly problem. For reasons obvious and not, quality quantitative work on the health effects of China’s e-waste processing industry have been relatively rare. Thus, I was quite pleased to see Richard Stone’s August 28 report in Science [subscriber only] regarding several scientists doing epidemiological work in the region.

Ironically, though, despite being published in Science (one of the world’s premier scientific journals), Stone’s article contains several factual errors (including mis-dating Chinese regulations on e-waste imports). Of those, the most important is the old saw that Guiyu and other Chinese e-waste dumps are “Western” and, specifically, American phenomena. For example, this passage:

In Guiyu, one of the biggest and most notorious processing sites in the world, banners declare that “Dealing in imported used electronics is an act of smuggling,” says Eddy Zeng, an organic geochemist at the Guangzhou Institute of Geochemistry. But because existing regulations are poorly enforced, he says, “Tremendous amounts of e-waste have been imported illegally,” such that China now processes 70% of the world’s e-waste.

Nevermind the fact that the 70% figure cannot be substantiated (nobody can say, for example, just how much e-waste is being brokered and trans-shipped through Dubai and Hong Kong en route to Karachi – we just know it’s a whole lot), this passage and article gloss over the most important factor driving China’s e-waste processing trade: namely, that the largest source of scrap electronics in Guiyu and elsewhere is … China. This is particularly the case in the last year, as the global economic crisis has adversely impacted the export of all scrap materials to Asia. Zeng, no doubt a Chinese scientist isn’t likely to pin Guiyu on the network of local governments, and the national government, which continue to support its existence (how else would Hong Kong scientists be able to operate so freely there?). And this gets to the heart of the issue: Guiyu is Chinese. Insofar as the media, academics, and journalists continue to frame it as a foreign phenomenon, the result of Western mis-doing, they merely serve to provide the Communist Party with a ready excuse for doing nothing: that is, we’d clean it up if only the foreigners would stop dumping there.

There’s been more than a decade of documentaries about foreign wrong-doing in Guiyu, and Guiyu is still there. So here’s an idea: next time 60 Minutes or Frontline or Science decide to go to do a Guiyu story, follow the Chinese rather than the foreign waste chain, gather up the new Hong Kong epidemiological data, dub the whole thing into Chinese, and then set it loose on the Chinese blogs.You may not close down the sites, but I bet you’ll finally make the local governments nervous.

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[non-China content, here we come …] Here at Shanghai Scrap we tend to be behind the curve on everything, which is why I’ve only just now discovered the terrific singer-songwriter Tift Merritt. Too bad for me. In any case, over the last month I’ve spent quite a bit of time listening to her recent Buckingham Solo, and liking it more and more with each pass. If you’re willing to trust your ears to the tastes of a wayward China blogger, well, you could do much worse than having a listen, too (a nice clip from the Grand Ole Opry, here).

4 comments

  1. Apologies to anyone who left a comment during the first twelve hours this post was live. Accidentally, I erased all of them.

  2. For the formaldehyde issue in plywood factories, they just need to change the glue; none of the machinery has to change.

    The bamboo floor industry went through this; from urea, to melamine to E-1 and E-0 compatible glues.

    But glue affects the price, and the local market….well, you know. There needs to be a directive from up above to really solve this aspect.

  3. We can refuse to buy the stuff. It has gotten to the point that whatever I buy – eyeglass frames or air conditioners I start off by saying if its made in China I’m not interested.

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