Lessons from China


Pollution. Garbage. Plastic waste. Bad air quality. Traffic. The most polluting river in the world.

Just some thoughts that may come to your mind when you hear the word “China”.

(At this point it is reasonable to add that considerable amounts of pollution and garbage in China are caused be Western people due to 1) shipping of garbage from e.g. EU to China and 2) Chinese factories that produce commodities to people worldwide.)

I recently finished a postdoctoral period during which I worked for a Chinese research institute. As I study biodiversity-human impact relationships, I automatically paid attention to some environmental aspects during my everyday life in China.

The amount of plastic waste is HUGE. And I mean MASSIVE.

It is shocking to witness the use of plastic items. Straws, mugs, cups, bottles, bags – all made of plastic. Individually wrapped snacks – again, plastic.

The Chinese like to drink tea, coffee and juice and most of the time they buy them from shops and stalls that sell these drinks packed in plastic mugs, with a plastic straw, all packed in a plastic bag just so that the drink is easier to carry. Think about it. Tens and hundreds of millions of people do this every day, some several times a day. Where does all the plastic go? Also most of the snacks, cookies, candies and even fruits are individually wrapped in plastic. For a person from a country that tries to reduce the use of plastic packages, it is seriously devastating to witness the enormous volumes of plastic that is used and – most of the time – not recycled.

Bubble tea – yummy! – in a plastic mug, comes with a straw. This x tens or hundreds of millions per day…
Strawberries. Nothing else to say.

This summer Shanghai started to demand sorting of garbage and recycling of waste. I hope there is more to come and that this practice will spread throughout the country.

Here’s a free tip: they need options for plastic in China, so wood-based alternatives and other innovations need to be quickly offered to the Chinese market. Probably these steps have already been taken, though, and also the Chinese government is very well aware of the waste problem, so hopefully this issue will be solved fast. In China, it can truly be solved fast, as the only thing that it requires is that a person with high authority demands that businesses need to reduce the use of plastics and people have to start recycling. I send all my good wishes to China so that they can deal with this problem – that would also help in solving some serious threats concerning the health of ocean ecosystems (but it is another story).

Pollution from traffic wasn’t as bad as I expected.

Before I went to China, I was afraid of the air pollution. Quickly I realized that they had already taken strong actions against air pollution, and now practically all of the scooters were electric. Also, majority of the cars were very new and likely way less polluting compared to the cars in Finland, for instance. Most of the people however use public transportation systems, mainly trains, metros and buses, which helps to keep the pollution from traffic in a lower level.

Metro station at Xue Ze Lu, Nanjing.
Super fast train that went as fast as 300 km/h.

To me, the coolest thing traffic-wise was the electronic rental bike system. There were several companies that had apps to rent bikes via your phone. The system worked very well because most of the times there were enough free bikes to rent, and for instance with the HelloBike app the rental fee was around 1-1.5 rmb. That’s really inexpensive! After locking the bike after use, the app informed how much better for environment taking the bike was compared to driving a car. The bike roads were usually also really good outside of the CBD. Many times there were separate roads for pedestrians, bikes and scooters, and cars. I know these e-rent bikes are becoming increasingly popular around the world. It might be a good idea for people who create “city bike” systems to go and see how these things are managed in China. Very impressive.

Separate spaces for pedestrians, bikes and cars in Xianlin, Nanjing. This photo is of course taken outside of the CBD.
Rental bikes that you can electronically rent if you have Internet access and an app (e.g. Alipay) in your phone.
Screen shot from my phone after locking the rental bike. The app shows the price (standard price 1.5 rmb), the length of the journey, how much carbon dioxide was “saved” compared to driving a car, and how many calories used.

“War against pollution” is on, but what about climate change?

I was invited to attend the opening ceremony of the International Summit of New Technology for Ecology and Environment 2019, which was co-hosted by Jiangsu Provincial People’s Government and Ministry of Ecology and Environment of the People’s Republic of China.

In the opening ceremony there were altogether six speakers who had short presentations related to Jiangsu’s environmental issues and possible solutions. Five of the speakers were Chinese: Vice Governor of Jiangsu, Vice Minister of Ecology and Environment of the PRC, two Academicians from Chinese Academy of Engineering, and Vice President of China Yangtze River Ecological Environmental Protection Group. One speaker was a foreigner, the Consul General of France in Shanghai.

All speakers stressed the importance of healthy environment and ecosystems. All agreed that humans have altered nature, including water, air and biota, in the Jiangsu/Yangtze River region in a harmful way. “War against pollution” and “battle against pollution” were repeated in some of the talks given by Chinese authorities and also a video play which presented some sort of a service platform for commercialization of S&T achievements in ecology and environment. If I understood correctly, the only person who mentioned “climate change” directly was the French speaker, who talked about e.g. the Paris Agreement. The Chinese approached the topic less directly by talking about regional environmental problems and about pollution in general. Although direct talk about climate change was kind of missing from the Chinese talks, the topic was anyways present in the opening ceremony: if I understood correctly, the greenhouse gases produced by the summit were compensated (there was a Chinese bank funding for this – I unfortunately missed the name of the bank).

I got a good seat and could follow the translated talks very well (unfortunately my Chinese skills only allow me to order food in restaurants – assuming it’s a good day and the waiter is patient enough).

Based on the talks, it became very clear to me that environmental problems are taken seriously in China. Of course – it’s a health risk to live in cities with bad air quality and use polluted, low-quality water as drinking water. Ecosystem health of the Yangtze River region was mentioned in a couple of talks. Apparently President Xi has stated that “protection needs to come before development” in the Yangtze River Economic Belt, meaning that first comes protection, and then comes green technology. The same person who introduced the Presidents’s thoughts also stressed that urbanization has taken too much space from nature, and people need to recognize the importance of the “ecospace”.

In addition to talks circling around pollution, I was excited to hear some thoughts related to development of monitoring methods of Chinese freshwaters. One speaker mentioned that there is a need to develop new water quality standards, which need to be based on fresh scientific knowledge and required by law. The update of the standards for the entire country is a massive task, but they are checking some suitable parts of the methods used in Japan, EU and US. International collaboration is the way to go. Also, the same speaker continued that President Xi has stated that we need to think of “ecopriority” and acknowledge the significance of aquatic creatures. (“What a heart-warming thought“, might a researcher studying freshwater biodiversity say.)

At this point I want to mention that the talks were all translated from Chinese to English through headphones, so it is possible that I missed or misunderstood some points.

Overall it was very interesting to attend such a summit. In addition to the opening ceremony, I took a look at what else the summit had to offer. The exhibition halls contained so much innovations related to environmental research and technology. And most of the companies were from Jiangsu, so it was only a relatively small part of what China has to offer in terms of technological applications for environmental and ecological research and management.

The name of the conference said “international”, so it is enough for ticking the “international” box, right?
There were very interesting and modern research applications presented in the exhibition halls. I was particularly interested in the drones and small boats.

I visited the summit on my last Friday in China (I left on Sunday), so I could leave the country feeling rather positive and hopeful. Clearly people are increasingly aware of the extent and diversity of environmental problems, and there are already good solutions to cope with some of them. Furthermore, new innovations and ideas appear probably every day. Science, new innovations and exchange of expert knowledge are keys to success in the “war against pollution”.

Thanks for reading this post! This is just a tiny scratch to the huge theme of human impacts on our one-and-only planet Earth. For instance, air quality is – despite some advances – still a big problem in China, especially in the north during winter when usually fossil fuels are used to heat up the apartments. The world is certainly not ready yet and there is room for improvement! Our duty as scientists is to try our best to tackle the multitude of problems. Also it is the responsibility of governments, companies and foundations to support research and international collaboration.


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