By Chen Zhiyong (China Daily)
Updated: 2006-01-21 07:09
In this fast-paced world, the convenience of eating take-out and using single-use tableware draws in more and more people.
despite their handiness, the plastic bags and foam plastic food
containers have been associated with "white pollution," because they
Still, packaging experts have recently said
it's not the products alone that are to blame for the environmental
pollution. The public needs to examine their own conducts and enforce
strict codes in these products' production, disposal and recycling.
in early 1980s, cheap, sanitary and food-preserving containers made of
Styrofoam, a major type of foam plastics, won favour among Chinese
people. It became widely used on trains and in the fast food industry.
However, people's environmental awareness did not keep up with rapidly increasing production of Styrofoam packaging.
was common for people to toss the containers after using them,
resulting in white disposable tableware littered everywhere, many
piling up along the railways and floating in the rivers.
unpleasant terms as "the white Great Wall" and "white blanket" are
often used to describe the messy scenes throughout cities.
the wind was blowing hard in those days, you could see plastic bags
sail over the sky and hang up on the trees," recalled He Jiaxing, a
veteran packaging expert and honorary director of China Green Packaging
Eventually, people started to become concerned more about white pollution.
1991, experts from the packaging industry gathered for the first time
to discuss strategies for recycling to alleviate the environmental
Later, the State Environmental Protection Administration advocated recycling when dealing with plastic waste.
because Styrofoam was hard to collect and took up a lot space, and some
companies began to produce eco-friendly single-use tableware, the
government decided to adopt a drastic action against Styrofoam.
1999, the former State Economic and Trade Commission, China's top
economic supervisor, declared that the production and use of disposable
Styrofoam tableware would be no longer tolerated.
From that time
on, dozens of cities, including Beijing, Tianjin, Nanjing, Hangzhou,
Wuhan, Chengdu and Xi'an, have imposed local restrictions on the sale
and use of Styrofoam tableware.
Six years after the ban, Li
Peisheng, deputy director of Beijing Recycling Economy Research
Institute, led an investigation team to research the current status of
disposable tableware market. From June 1 and August 17 last year, the
team visited 11 cities in Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Guangdong provinces, as
well as Beijing and Shanghai.
"The ban, in a way, has promoted
public awareness of environmental protection. But on the other hand,
the production of Styrofoam actually cannot be banned and still
contributes to a majority of one-off tableware market share," said Li.
Up to 70 per cent of the nearly 12 billion disposable snack boxes of various kinds are made of Styrofoam.
In Shanghai, the share exceeds 95 per cent.
total sales of plastic tableware have increased over the amount before
the ban. Its low cost supports a strong demand among food suppliers in
the market and makes it hard for the catering service people to give
them up," said Li.
Stumbling eco-friendly tableware
In the wake of the dilemma over disposable packaging, alternatives have been encouraged.
The new packaging mainly applies natural or renewable raw materials and is engineered to be biodegradable.
four types of eco-friendly substitutes are available in the market,
made from paperboard, rice husk, straw and starch respectively.
But Li's investigation team found that most of these enterprises are struggling to survive.
Guangdong Province, 16 enterprises are producing eco-friendly tableware
in 2000, but four years later, only five remained and the rest closed
down owing to financial plight.
In 2002, the total sales number of eco-friendly tableware in the whole country was two-fifths that of Styrofoam's.
it has been discovered that consumers and suppliers are reluctant to
pay for biodegradable containers that cost several times more. Also,
their mechanical properties, sanitary quality and temperature
preservation ability are inferior to Styrofoam ones.
importantly, the biodegradable label may also be sending a misleading
message. The products bearing the label are, in fact, just partially
degradable within years, according to Tang Saizhen, senior engineer of
China Light Industry Information Center and also a degradable plastics
Some of these "new" products actually contain more water
or oil-resistant substances, the latter of which are not easily
degradable under natural conditions. Starch-type packaging, especially,
will not rot away when packed into the garbage pile, because it only
degrades in the sunshine.
"So if discarded everywhere, the so-called biodegradable tableware can also cause white pollution," said Tang.
At the same time, the quality of some degradable tableware is worrisome, she noted.
order to save production cost in the ever-competitive market, some
firms are adding more of the chemical product CaCo3 into their
biodegradable containers, which can potentially contaminate food.
production of eco-friendly substitutes can also be problematic. The
process of producing paperboard tableware generates waste water and
gas, which poses a more serious pollution to the environment than the
waste products themselves, according to Tang.
Styrofoam tableware is still the best choice within the one-off
packaging family, when concerning safety, quality, price and recycling
as a whole," she argued.
However, Tang believes that the
biodegradable alternatives should eventually replace Styrofoam when the
new technologies clean up their production process and lower their
Shanghai as role model
Besides further improving the
quality of degradable one-off tableware, both Li and Tang pointed out
that recycling and reprocessing used Styrofoam, rather than completely
banning its production, is an important strategy to eliminate white
After the government issued the ban on Styrofoam tableware, only Shanghai took a moderate attitude toward it.
addition to gradually cutting production of Styrofoam, the city
required its producers and dealers to pay extra money, which is used to
subsidize garbage collectors, reprocessing factory, relative management
department and garbage transport.
Now in Shanghai, a
comprehensive network has been established to collect the white
pollution, which is then delivered to a reprocessing factory in
Kunshan, Jiangsu Province, and a waste utilization centre in Putuo
More than 70 per cent of used plastic tableware has been recovered in the city.
experts previously believed Styrofoam tableware could not be recycled
because it is susceptible to hard-to-clean grease stains.
now the technical difficulties have already been tackled. Also, the
water used to clean the boxes can be recyclable," said Tang.
plastics from used containers can produce plastic granules, which are
used as raw materials for hard plastic products like rulers, buttons
Five years after the city issued the management
guidelines on one-off tableware in 2000, its visual pollution to the
city has been largely reduced.
When Li's investigation team went to local communities, they rarely saw the discarded one-off food containers.
successful story demonstrated that recycling and reprocessing is a good
and feasible strategy to eliminate white pollution," said Li.
to Tang, some Western countries had also once tried to ban the
production of Styrofoam containers, but the idea turned out to be
unrealistic. Enforced recycling proved to be a much better policy.
the recycling, supplemented by improving degradable packaging, should
be the future direction of dealing with one-off tableware pollution,"