The Fruits of Recycling: Cancerous Take-out Containers.

Late last week the China Daily and other news outlets reported on a recently released study by the Hong Kong-based International Food Packaging Association (IFPA) showing that roughly half of the disposable dishware (think: plastic and paper take-out boxes) is substandard, and often can be found “with excessive amounts of chemicals that can cause cancer.” The source of these boxes is described, by China Daily, as follows:

Dong also said that less than 10 percent of the disposable dishware sold in the market is made of paper pulp, which is generally safer but more expensive. The foam and plastic boxes each take about 45 percent of the market share.

China has banned the sale and use of disposable dishware made of foam, as it is more likely to be made of plastic wastes.

As for the plastic boxes, Dong said a large number of them are actually made in small plants that do not have production licenses.

This caught my eye. Last summer I spent several days traveling in one of China’s major plastics recycling zones for a story that was eventually published in the American recycling trade, Scrap as China’s Plastics Frontier (subsc. only) in November. To protect the individuals who introduced me to, and and traveled with me in this region, I referred to it (and still do) by the pseudonym Guibei. It is a remarkable place, with anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 separate plastic recycling plants manufacturing materials for some of the world’s largest electronics manufacturers – and some of North China’s take-out food palaces. During my first afternoon there, I got some sense of the latter industry, of which I wrote:

Guibei’s infrastructure is still primitive, thus we’re grateful for a fourwheel-drive vehicle that can negotiate the muddy potholes that run between farm fields. As we pass one village where plastic bags twist and swirl in the wind and get tangled in the trees, our driver begins to laugh with his colleague in the passenger seat: Apparently, some of the businesses in this area manufacture plastic bags that they market as suitable for food use, when they’re most definitely not.

My photo of that facility is a blur (the SUV was bouncing), so, below, an image of a nearby facility that was pretty much indistinguishable from the one mentioned in the piece, and hundreds of others engaged in the business in this region.

The question that naturally arises is: how can this happen? The answer is pretty simple: the raw material for cheap food containers – low-grade recyclable plastics – is inexpensive, and the demand for low-cost take-out boxes is high. Equally important, Guibei’s recycled plastics industry is a source of tax revenue (and others sorts of revenue) made more important by the fact that this region’s once vibrant agricultural economy has been all but destroyed by drought, water diversion, and extensive contamination.

The China Daily article spreads the blame:

However, food experts said the management of disposable dishware is in the hands of at least three government departments, which makes it hard to effectively spot violations.

According to existing laws and regulations, the production of disposable dishware is the responsibility of quality control authorities, but when the products enter the market, the industry and commerce authority takes over.

It then becomes the health department’s responsibility to supervise restaurants that hand out such products.

But, of course, this is complete rubbish – a smokescreen to obscure the fact that China is home to a giant recycled plastics (and paper) industry that operates with little regard to human health and safety. Problems on the scale that I found in Guibei – and that you, dear reader, might find in your take-out noodles – are going to require intervention at a pay grade slightly higher than the one enjoyed by the health department director.

Below, bags of KFC cups and straws awaiting recycling in Guibei.

A final, quick note. On Friday, the Guardian’s Jonathan Watts published an excellent article on Beijing’s burgeoning waste disposal problem. I recommend it highly, though I take issue with its claim that only 4% of Beijing refuse is recycled (compared to 35% of the EU’s). This is highly misleading. In China, recyclable materials are pulled from the waste stream by independent, entrepreneurial recyclers (peddlers) before it’s picked up by a government unit. By the time the waste stream reaches the landfill, it’s mostly food waste and low-grade, un-recyclable paper and plastic items (grease-stained McDonald’s bags; cheap plastic bags; talcum-contaminated food containers). In contrast, the EU’s waste stream is packed with high-value recyclables that its citizens can or won’t be bothered to remove for recycling. Instead, those materials are recovered after the waste stream enters the formal disposal system. Thus, the EU can proudly declare a 35% recovery rate. China’s waste stream simply doesn’t have that much recyclable material in it by the time it reaches the landfill – and so, in a sense, the 4% rate is a triumph.

This should be obvious to anyone who’s ever seen a scrap peddler working at his trade on a Chinese street corner.


  1. Many of Jonathan Watts’ other articles are datelined “Beijing.” Guess he didn’t wander around the city too much.

  2. One quibble: “chemicals that cause cancer” is a very nebulous term. In rats ? In huge amounts ? At any level ?

    Otherwise, info on the quality, etc. is distressing.

  3. Christopher –

    I haven’t read the IFPA report (nine years in the making, apparently), so I’m in no position to say anything about the carcinogens flagged, quantities, etc. I assume (perhaps incorrectly?) that the science is good, and that China Daily was just using shorthand for its readers.

    That noted, you’re quite right – it’s important to be precise when throwing around terms like that.

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