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Energy Waste

Rise or Demise?

Updated on Jul 02, 2008 – SCMP

Thirty-five years ago, when I made my first visit to mainland China, I was appalled by what I took to be the backwardness and poverty of the place. People lived simply, dressed simply and rarely threw anything away.

On the rare occasion when they visited a restaurant, they invariably took the leftovers home, with food from various dishes all dumped into one metal container. And when they went shopping, they brought their own string bags. Shops did not provide plastic bags and purchases were wrapped in newspaper.

In the summer, people endured the heat since virtually no one had air-conditioning, certainly not at home and, usually, not in the office either. Paper fans were ubiquitous. At night, many people moved their beds out on to the streets to get away from the ovens that were their homes.

In the north, in winter, piles of cabbages were piled up outdoors, with refrigeration provided by nature ensuring that the vegetables would not go bad for months. By and large, people lived in walkups. Lifts were virtually unknown, except in government offices.

Bicycles were the king of the road, with a few cars carefully threading their way through the traffic, their honking drowned out by the tinkling of the bicycles.

Paper tissues were unknown; people used handkerchiefs that could be washed and reused. In fact, there was very little garbage of any description because nothing was thrown away that could be used again in some way. The consumer society had not reached China and, it seemed, Chinese were being left behind.

Fast forward a few decades and you now have a country that is as much into conspicuous consumption as anywhere else. Today, highways crisscross the country and bicycles have vanished from avenues, to be replaced by cars. Restaurants in the big cities throw away uneaten food even though many of the poor who live in the interior would be grateful for the scraps.

China has now caught up with the modern world. After three decades of rapid economic development, the soil is now poisoned, as is the water and the air. In the race for modernity, China has even overtaken the United States as the world’s leading emitter of greenhouse gases.

Environmental protection, which was not talked about much 35 years ago, is now on everyone’s lips. And, ironically, it turns out that the way Chinese were living in the 1970s, before the country launched its industrialisation drive, was far healthier than the way people live today, squandering nature’s resources. The 1970s lifestyle, it turns out, was sustainable while the present one is not.

Instead of China learning from the outside world then, the outside world should have learned from China. Then, we would not be faced with the dire threats not just to our way of life but to life itself.

It is ironic that use of plastic bags, which I saw as a sign of modernity 35 years ago, should now be a sign of the ignorance and backwardness of a society where the people do not appreciate the damage that they are doing to the world and their descendants.

Paper, it seems, is really much better for wrapping up purchases, since paper is biodegradable but plastic bags stay around for years. They clutter up drains and pollute the soil as well as the water we drink and the air we breathe.

Now, I realise that the proliferation of plastic bags is not the sign of a developed society, but of gross stupidity and selfishness.

It is good to see that China, which entered the age of plastic bags later than most societies, is moving decisively to reduce their use. Starting this month, retailers are not allowed to give free plastic bags to their customers. In addition, China has made it illegal to produce and distribute ultra-thin plastic bags which are normally only used once and then thrown away.

The legislature in Ulan Bator, capital of Mongolia, apparently responding to the Chinese action, urged residents on Thursday not to use thin plastic bags and to replace them with paper or cloth bags. Isn’t it time that Hong Kong followed suit?

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator.

China To Join Ban On Ultra-Thin Plastic Bags

Reuters in Beijing – Updated on May 28, 2008

The mainland is to try to kick a 3 billion-a-day plastic bag habit. But breaking the addiction, in a bid to save energy and protect the environment, will be easier said than done.

On Sunday, it will join a growing list of countries, from Ireland to Bangladesh, that are aiming to change shoppers’ habits when a ban on the production of plastic bags under 0.025mm thick comes into force.

Ultra-thin bags are the principal target of the crackdown because they are typically used once and then discarded, adding to waste in a country that is increasingly conscious of the air and water pollution caused by its breakneck economic growth.

Shopkeepers will also be barred from handing out free plastic carrier bags except for fresh and cooked foods. Those breaking the law face fines and could have their goods confiscated.

The mainland consumes 37 million barrels of what is very expensive crude oil each year to churn out the 3 billion plastic bags that its 1.3 billion people use on average each day, according to official figures.

Ma Zhanfeng, the secretary general of the China Plastics Processing Industry Association who has nearly 20 years in the industry, expects the ban to bite. “Domestic demand for plastic bags will drop drastically from 1.6 million tonnes a year to around 1.1 million tonnes.”

Bag makers have felt the pinch from the looming restrictions. Some have been forced out of business.

But Ning Rongju of Friends of Nature, a non-governmental organisation, says all will depend on whether the new rules are enforced, especially in cities such as Beijing, where demand for bags is huge.

“The execution and monitoring of the law will actually determine the future of plastic bags,” she said.

Xiao Ling, the mother of a six-year-old boy, said her family was already using nylon shopping bags. But she, too, was sceptical. “Getting rid of all ultra-thin bags will take a long time,” she said while shopping at a Wal-Mart supermarket in Beijing.

For plastic processors, the curbs are the latest blow to a sector struggling with soaring raw material and labour costs, a rising exchange rate and an end to export tax rebates.

The plastic bag industry is highly segmented, with factories in almost every province. One major centre is Taizhou, a city in Zhejiang province, where more than 10,000 manufacturers of plastic products enjoy sales of 40 billion yuan (HK$44.92 billion) each year, according to the Taizhou Plastics Industry Association.

Chen Jiazeng, the group’s director, said “small factories might ignore the rule and keep making ultra-thin bags” as long as they could make money.

The prospect that some underground manufacturers will turn a blind eye to the law is especially unsettling for smaller firms.

The Taizhou Xinxing Plastic Packaging Company, which employs 300 people and has annual sales of about 15 million yuan, mostly from plastic bags, is considering switching to other plastic goods.

“The new policy will make plastic bags even more expensive,” Su Xiaobing, the company’s sales manager, said. “We won’t have any price advantage then.”

Fear of illegal competition is shared by big manufacturers such as Huiqiang in Henan province, whose plastic bags all conform to the new national standards.

Exporters Confront Rising Environmental Costs

GUANGZHOU, May 1 (Xinhua) — Chinese manufacturers have seen their costs for environmental protection rise, in many ways, since the government raised the standards over the past year.

Companies that were identified as violating environmental laws were barred from the Canton Fair, or the China Import and Export Fair, during a penalty period, said fair spokesman Xu Bing.

One such company was Jilin Fudun Timber Co., Ltd., a timber company, which was placed on a blacklist by environmental regulators last year.

The Canton Fair is the most important channel for Chinese exporters to expand overseas, so a ban means big losses.

China has conducted special campaigns against polluting companies since last year. And violators have lost more than just export opportunities: blacklisted firms find it difficult to get loans. The State Environmental Protection Administration, now the Ministry of Environmental Protection, along with the central bank and the Banking Regulatory Commission, jointly issued a “green loan” policy in July that banned loans to blacklisted companies.

In addition, the government stated that the worst violators would face shutdowns of up to three years.

A senior official with the National Development and Reform Commission, the country’s top economic planner, said that “all these measures made it clear that companies must establish pollution-treatment facilities. Only paying fines for degrading the environment is definitely not enough.”

As supervision strengthened, some companies had to shut down.

Fuan Textile Mill, a Hong Kong-listed company, shut down last March as it was found to be discharging wastewater directly into underground pipes. The company was fined 11.55 million yuan (1.65 million U.S. dollars).

During the spring session of this year’s Canton Fair, which concluded on Wednesday, Minister of Commerce Chen Deming said China would maintain strict controls on polluting and energy-wasting companies, despite a tougher export situation.

Appliance giant Haier introduced a “green strategy” at the fair. It showed off more than 100 new products, such as washing machines that don’t require laundry powder. The company won orders worth 850 million U.S. dollars.

Sales manager Yang Hong said that a Spanish customer had decided to buy more than 10 million U.S. dollars worth of environmentally-friendly products in less than 15 minutes. “It was a surprise to us,” said Yang.

Other products at the fair, such as furniture, decorations and toys, also emphasized an environmentally-friendly trend. Products using recycled materials were especially popular.

Liu Zhenyi, president of Shandong Luyi Wooden Product Co., Ltd., said their wood and woven-grass products all used recycled materials.

“Our products were made to European standards, although the cost was much higher,” he said. “They do not contain any lead or toxic chemical materials. We are confident about our products.”

Xu said Chinese companies were following stricter rules in designing, manufacturing, recycling and selling their products. “To promote energy-efficient products is to save resources for the world,” he said.

A Mexican buyer said that consumers in his country believed Chinese products were low-end only a couple of years ago “but now nobody would worry about quality.”

He said: “China is our major import country. Last year, we imported one to two containers of goods every month, but now we need to import at least two containers.”

Coal-to-fuel Projects Risk Green Backlash

Eric Ng in Beijing – Updated on Apr 05, 2008 SCMP

Turning coal into liquid fuel and chemicals is a potentially lucrative business on the energy-hungry mainland, but Beijing’s concerns about the environmental impact of such projects means investors risk getting their fingers burned.

Tse Bing, chairman of Hong Kong-listed mainland drugmaker Sino Biopharmaceutical, agreed in 2006 to take a 43 per cent stake in a 5 billion yuan (HK$5.55 billion) joint venture with two Shaanxi government companies to build a coal-to-chemical plant in Yulin city. However, the project in the coal-rich province hit a snag after it was launched in 2003, and it is now in limbo. Producing usable fuel from coal requires large amounts of water and energy, raising the ire of environmentalists.

“The Shaanxi government has failed to deliver a province-wide environmental impact assessment demanded by the State Environmental Protection Administration (Sepa) on coal-to-chemical projects, so the project has been stalled,” he said.

Mr Tse, vice-president of the Thai-Chinese run conglomerate Chia Tai Group and the parent of Sino Biopharmaceutical, said Sepa wanted to know whether the project would emit more carbon dioxide and consume more water than the parched province could support.

With worsening air and water pollution rising to the top of Beijing’s political agenda, projects such as coal-to-liquid fuel are being closely scrutinised by increasingly powerful regulators. Sepa was elevated to full ministry status at the National People’s Congress last month.

“When we first discussed co-operation with the provincial government, Beijing had not stipulated water resource and environment protection regulations over such projects,” he said. “The provincial government told us both issues should not be a problem, but now it has not passed the central government’s scrutiny.”

The National Development and Reform Commission stopped approving new coal-to-liquid fuel and chemical projects in mid-2006, citing environmental concerns and pending a comprehensive industry development plan. That plan has still not been released.

The commission has also banned coal-to-liquid fuel projects of less than 3 million tonnes of annual capacity, coal-to-methanol projects of less than 1 million tonnes and coal-to-olefin projects of less than 600,000 tonnes in capacity.

Methanol is a fuel and industrial solvent, while olefins are key chemical building blocks for plastics and man-made fibres.

Producing such products from coal, instead of crude oil, is part of Beijing’s strategy to cut reliance on crude imports.

Fuel and chemicals produced from coal are largely free of sulphuric gases which cause acid rain. But they produce large amounts of greenhouse effect-causing carbon dioxide, unless plants are fitted with expensive carbon capture and storage (CCS) facilities that are still in an early development stage.

With oil prices surging to record highs, these projects appear hugely profitable if environmental costs are excluded. Industry executives saying they are profitable as long as crude oil stays above US$30 a barrel.

Peter de Wit, executive vice-president of energy giant Royal Dutch/Shell’s clean coal energy division, said it was too early too tell when the mainland would install CCS facilities, although they were expected to be introduced gradually in Europe in the next five to 10 years in coal-burning energy and chemical projects.

“By 2050, for our atmosphere to cope with carbon dioxide emissions, we expect 90 per cent of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development nations and at least 50 per cent of non-OECD countries will have to install CCS,” he said.

Chia Tai had invested some 400 million yuan towards the development of a coal-to-chemical technology at the Dalian Institute of Chemical Physics under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and held rights to its licensing, Mr Tse said.

Previously, project developers could start construction after getting support from local governments, which are more eager to see projects go ahead to drive employment and industrial output.

Mr Tse’s project, originally scheduled to come on stream late last year, had received approval from the local government but failed to meet the NDRC’s scale requirements, he said. Chia Tai had therefore decided not to proceed with building.

“We didn’t dare move ahead because we were worried these projects may have a similar fate to the infamous Tieben steel project,” he said. “We don’t want our project to become a white elephant.”

Tieben Iron and Steel was ordered by Beijing in 2004 to cease building of its planned 10.6 billion yuan steel plant in Changzhou, Jiangsu province, after government officials were found to have assisted in the misappropriation of land for the project, which was approved by the local government but was out of line with Beijing’s industry policy.

Despite the regulatory problems facing private operators, several state-backed firms including China Shenhua Group, Datang Power International Generation and Yanzhou Coal Mining, have moved ahead with construction of their coal-to-chemical projects and are expected to come on stream this year or next.

Shenhua and Yanzhou claim they have obtained all necessary approvals, although Datang admitted its project is still subject to final approval from the NDRC.

In addition to failing to clear environmental hurdles, Mr Tse said Chia Tai also ran into problems with the local government on its investment in a coal mine in Yushuwan, Yulin, which would have supplied the coal-to-chemical project.

Chia Tai has a 40 per cent stake in the mining project, while listed Yanzhou Coal Mining has 41 per cent and a local government firm 19 per cent.

He said the local government had demanded that it pay more than 2 billion yuan in additional investment after it had already invested some 266 million yuan into the project.

The joint venture agreement has still not been sanctioned by the local government.

Mr Tse said Chia Tai still wanted to settle the dispute through negotiations, adding it has been looking at investing in other coal-to-chemical projects in Xinjiang to hedge its bets.

Safe Disposal Of Used Energy-Saving Light Bulbs

SCMP – 2nd April 2008

I write in response to the letter by Sharon Li (Talkback, March 28), about the safe disposal of used energy-saving light bulbs.

The government encourages the wider use of fluorescent lamps since they are more energy-efficient and have a longer service life than incandescent light bulbs. However, they contain a small quantity of mercury and broken lamps should be properly handled.

To provide an environmentally sound outlet for the disposal of used fluorescent lamps, 15 suppliers of fluorescent lamps have joined hands to organise and fund a territory-wide recycling programme with the support of the Environmental Protection Department. Starting from tomorrow, 53 public collection points will be provided at the retail outlets of participating companies, designated shopping malls and houseware stores.

In addition, more than 480 housing estates have signed up for the recycling programme, and starting from April 14, collection bins will be provided at these participating housing estates for residents to deposit their used lamps. The collected lamps will then be delivered to a mercury lamp treatment facility set up at the Chemical Waste Treatment Centre. More details on the recycling programme can be found at

We thank Ms Li for her interest in the safe disposal of energy-saving light bulbs, and we encourage the public to participate in the fluorescent lamp recycling programme.

Light Pollution in Hong Kong

SCMP – 18th March

Why is it that, when so much fuss is being made regarding reducing pollution in Hong Kong and saving electricity so that we can save the environment, a large insurance company like Fortis is allowed to erect a gigantic neon sign in Tai Koo Shing that shines directly into the apartments of Westland Gardens and Splendid Place, not only destroying our privacy and right to a relaxing evening at home, but also being bad for the environment?

I cannot understand how Hong Kong can on the one hand pretend to care about the environment, but on the other hand let companies do something like this. If Fortis needs to display such a huge neon sign, why not do it in the central business district, away from residents? Many residents have been totally affected by Fortis’ selfish marketing, finding it difficult to relax at night and have a good night’s sleep – vital factors to maintaining a healthy body and mind.

Even though many residents have contacted the marketing department and begged to have the neon sign switched off, there has been no co-operation from Fortis. How long does one have to suffer?

K. Mane, Quarry Bay

Pollution In Hong Kong: Between The Smog And The Deep Blue Sea

EC Newsdesk – 13th July 2006

Air pollution in Hong Kong is drawing noisy protests, but cutting the region’s huge consumption of dirty electricity – not least through residents’ passion for air conditioning – is a gargantuan ambition, writes Sam Chambers

Three years ago more than half a million Hong Kong residents took to the streets to protest against perceived infringements of civil liberties by Beijing’s chosen leader for the former British colony, the now departed Tung Chee-hwa.

Today, politics is widely being disregarded in favour of protesting against the state of the air that Hong Kongers breathe.

A recent university study showed that Hong Kong is blanketed in smog on average 28 days a month.

For a long time, the rise of the Pearl River Delta as the manufacturing centre of the world – accounting for one third of China’s total exports – was cited begrudgingly and helplessly by Hong Kongers as the reason for their dirty air.

Now, armed with greater information on local firms – especially the two coal burning utilities, Hong Kong Electric and China Light and Power – the population is increasingly making its irritation heard.

One movement, Lights Out Hong Kong, wishes to create a public protest that will put the democracy marches into the shade.

The organisation, founded just two months ago, intends to ask the general public to turn off their residential and office lighting on 8 August at 8pm for three minutes.

Another organisation, Clean The Air, shows clearly how much Hong Kong is to blame for its own predicament.

Seventy per cent of roadside pollution comes from dirty vehicles and 50% of Hong Kongers live near a road. Half of Hong Kong’s pollution comes from the two power plants, and one third of the electricity they produce is used for air conditioning. Hong Kong has the coldest offices in the world.

Wrapping up warm

A survey released this spring by Dr Deng Shiming of The Hong Kong Polytechnic University indicated that most Hong Kong people like to have icy bedrooms, with 55% of those polled keeping their bedroom temperature as low as 22°C, far below the 25.5°C recommended by the government.

And 20% of those polled refrigerated their bedrooms at 20°C or below. But such wintry temperatures failed to provide comfort for the occupants – as 25% of those surveyed said they woke up at night shivering.

The study also found 50% of the respondents covered themselves with “air-con quilts” while having the air-con blasting.

Shiming, associate professor at the Department of Building Services Engineering, says: “Wrapping up in air-con quilts in summer is absurd. By choosing lighter coverings we can easily raise the bedroom temperature by up to 4°C without compromising our thermal comfort.”

Coal and cars

Greenpeace has made continued demonstrations against CLP, one of the two power station operators.

In 2005, CLP made HK$11.3 billion [£774 million] in profit, much of it from coal-powered electricity generation. The external cost of its coal-related business across Asia-Pacific this year rose 4% to HK$31.1 billion. The negative cost of the Castle Peak Power Station to the society is HK$13.5 billion,” says Chow Sze Chung, air pollution campaigner at Greenpeace.

Chows adds that 46,100 tons of sulphur dioxide were emitted as a result of CLP’s coal-burning in 2005.

“Sulphur dioxide will cause diseases in respiratory system, such as asthma and bronchitis, and is also a source of acid rain. All these external costs will inevitably damage the environment and poison Hong Kong people’s health,” he says.

A spokesperson for CLP maintains that as a result of fuel diversification and the installation of various scrubbers at its power plant, “between 1990 and 2005, CLP has reduced emissions of NOx, SO2 and particulates by 40% to 80%, despite an 80% rise in electricity demand during the period”. A move towards natural gas will further drive down emissions.

CLP’s counterpart, Hong Kong Electric, opened the SAR’s first wind turbine this year, up the hill from the coal-fired power station it operates on Lamma Island.

The gesture has been widely derided as a PR stunt with next to no effect on long-term improvement of the air quality of the region, since no further wind turbines have been mooted. CLP, meanwhile, has a set a renewable energy target of 5% by 2010.

Sam Chambers is a journalist based in Hong Kong.