It is not uncommon to see picture of people in Beijing, China bicycling or walking along with masks on their faces because of the horrible air pollution that envelops the city in heavy blankets of smog. China is heavily dependent on its industrialization but it is also committed to getting its pollution problem under control for the health of its citizens as well as the health of the Earth. However, smog and air pollution in populated cities are not the only environmental projects the nation is attempting to tackle.
Since the 1970s China’s population has surged. This has resulted in a higher demand for food production agriculture as well as the waste of millions of people. Soil contamination is a serious problem. The nation’s environmental protection agency believes that soil pollution is a real threat to sustainable agriculture as well as freshwater sources. The agency estimates that nearly twelve million tons of harvested grain is possibly contaminated with heavy metals annually. This leads to the loss of billions of dollars in the agriculture industry.
It is estimated that nearly five hundred million Chinese do not have safe drinking water. One way to reduce landfill waste and deal with water pollution is to increase recycling efforts and reduce the nearly 300 million tons of garbage every year that has to go somewhere. Disposable plastic bag garbage usually ends up in landfills, contaminating the soil which then leaches into water sources. In 2008 all shopping outlets in China were banned from offering plastic as a free bagging option to customers. To curb plastic bag use, customers now have to pay for heavy plastic bags. The super-thin plastic shopping bags that were widely used were banned completely. Paper is still available although the use of re-usable cloth bags or shopping baskets is widely encouraged. One year after the ban it was found that garbage dumps reported a ten percent decline in the presence of plastic bags.
One area of waste that is often overlooked is technology. It seems that every year a person’s cellphone or laptop or tablet is no longer desirable when a newer model is revealed. This results in China having millions of tons of electronic waste products. As the Chinese economy grows and the quality of life improves for the citizens, this problem will also grow. Although measures have been taken to curb the accumulation of electronic waste and its proper disposal, it still remains an unsolved problem.
China has become a target of complaints and unfavorable reports by influential world agencies such as the World Bank. Critical of the high levels of China’s industrial pollution, the World Bank has claimed that hundreds of thousands of Chinese die prematurely due to respiratory illnesses related to air pollution. They also charge the nation with highly contaminated waterways, caused by industrial waste. China has responded with stricter environmental regulations and reforms that have led to reductions in industrial pollution.
The existence of these pollution problems does not go unnoticed by the Chinese government. The nation’s Ministry of health has concluded that pollution is the leading cause of fatal cancers among the Chinese. They place the blame squarely upon air pollution for being responsible for the annual deaths of hundreds of thousands of China’s citizens.
In recent years China has worked vigorously to enact environmental protection laws. They have reduced air and water pollution levels while at the same time increasing the density of their forested regions. Grave pollution levels have led to progress that has become a model to other countries who are striving to improve their own nation’s environmental integrity and reduce pollution.
Another strategy has been to focus on developing alternative energy sources. China wants to increase the development and use of nuclear power as well as other non-fossil fuel alternatives. It strives to eliminate existing coal based power plants and no longer approves plans for future coal power plants. But the coal elimination strategy has a local economy sticking point. Many small communities are dependent on the coal industry for their revenue. So, the need of the environment must be balanced with the needs of the individuals to have a job and provide for their families.
Greenpeace has been keeping an eye on China’s progress. They reported that air pollution levels fell about ten percent in 2015 as compared to 2014 levels. This is progress and good news and signals that China is on the right track. Perhaps by the end of 2016 everyone in China can breathe a little easier and ditch the masks.