´╗┐Experiences of environmental issues in China so far

Air pollution

Beijing pollution was not as bad as I expected, at least in terms of fumes. I had a headache for the first 48 hours after arriving which I put down to the air quality, but it then subsided. The smog was not bad for the first few days although on the last 3 days the visibility was appalling – it felt dull and misty despite the sun being out – you just couldn’t see it (or more than 100m in front of you!). I found out later that was a particularly bad patch of pollution.

Shanghai wasn’t as bad as Beijing although I still noticed it. It came up in conversation with Selma how people who can afford to buy air purifiers for their apartments, which just adds to the cause of the problem really.

Apparently it is an issue that the government are now acting upon – a couple of years ago the American Embassy in Shanghai started tweeting about the air pollution index every day and how it compared to the US assessment of what was hazardous. For a while the Chinese government forbode it but now they give smog and air pollution much more attention in the media and have recently set up a research institute to investigate methods for reducing smog after it has been produced (not quite tackling the root cause but I guess at least it is something to help reduce the health risk!).

Waste management

Having come from Russia, I have been impressed at the infrastructure for recycling there is in all of the places we have been to, although I am not sure how much people use the ‘correct’ compartment of the bin (having peered in a few times, it seems not at all).

There are also a lot of old people who collect rubbish to recycle, as informal employment to support themselves – we regularly see old men and women carting huge bags of plastic bottles or sheets of cardboard around.

I have, however, been fairly appalled by the amount of packaging around food products, in supermarkets, at bakeries and fast food places. I bought a snack cake product the other day at the supermarket. It was in a cardboard box which looked like it might have 4-5 little cakes inside. It turned out there were just two cakes and the rest was just plastic packaging – so much of it! Supposedly the government are trying to legally reduce the amount of packaging that can be used on food products to avoid this kind of thing which is good.

Water scarcity

See profile on Thirst under ‘why’.

Food issues

Apparently there have been quite a few protests in relation to food recently e.g. the over-use of pesticides by Lipton Tea, scares to do with rat meat being sold as lamb, yoghurt containing a waste product from shoe factories… there is now a very popular Chinese website indexing all the different food scandals to help people with their consumer choices.

Organic food is becoming popular, particularly amongst parents, although that is not without issues of fraud with organic certificates. Most people resort to buying from sources they trust. The fruit and veg sellers and street markets stock only what is in season, which is a refreshing change from what we experience in the UK – access to everything all year round.

Access to nature

There are a great number of parks and green spaces in central Beijing, and most of the streets are lined with trees which is lovely. It is similarly tree-lined in central Shanghai, though the number of parks are fewer. The parks mostly cost between 10 and 20 yuan (£1-2) to get in but it does not seem to put anyone off from using them. It is a very particular type of nature created e.g. uniform lines of trees in the Temple of Heaven Park, oases of ornamental trees, pretty bridges and water in Behai park, rockeries, and many bright flower arrangements and pots.

In Beijing there did not feel a lack of green space, at least in the areas I was in, but in Shanghai I did begin to notice the lack of grass to walk on and opportunity to find a patch away from other people. For example, in the Yu gardens I was expecting/hoping for a tranquil patch of green but it was all rockeries, bridges, temples, tourists and trees surrounded by paving stones.

In Putuoshan, where we have just come from, an island part of an archipelago 5 hours bus journey south of Shanghai, I was surprised at how little people were interested in the beautiful natural surroundings. It was the temples and monasteries and seafood restaurants that most people were interested in. Time in nature away from other people isn’t for everyone but it makes me wonder if it affects interest in environmental sustainability here.