China Power

Tackling China’s Toxic Factories

Recent Features

China Power

Tackling China’s Toxic Factories

Transparency is key to cleaning up China’s factories. Undercover young environmentalists are trying to help.

The week leading up to Chinese New Year is a period during which many Chinese are focused on their preparations to return home for the holidays. But unbeknownst to the citizens of the Southern Chinese city of Hechi, industrial waste discharge, containing high levels of cadmium, was also leeching into a 100-kilometer stretch of the Longjiang and Liujiang rivers in Guangxi Province.

Although cadmium contamination was reportedly detected in Hechi as early as January 15, the only specific information made public by Hechi officials was an official media release on January 19. The lack of concrete, reliable and very importantly detailed information impeded disaster relief efforts by city officials further down the river and also led to a panic induced rush by concerned citizens who packed out supermarkets in order to buy bottled water.

The reaction from local officials in downstream Liuzhou was considerably better: on January 23 they began releasing data on cadmium levels in the Liujiang River almost on an hourly basis, disseminating this information using social media. But the fact remains that at the pollution source, an inadequate system of monitoring and inspection of local industry impeded the ability to identify who the actual source of the pollution was.

“Knowledge is power,” and in this case, as with many environmental concerns in China, to have knowledge we first need data.

In 2010, Greenpeace began to suspect that factories along the Yangtze River and Pearl River Delta were releasing hazardous chemicals into China's waterways. A team of investigators, including toxics campaigner Zhang Kai, were sent in to unearth the extent of the pollution and the culprits at hand. “Our investigators had to work undercover and conceal their identity. For example we had some workers pretend to apply for work at the factory so they could take photos of the plant secretly, and others gathered information by just chatting to factory workers,” Zhang Kai says.

Time and time again, the lack of data proved to be the biggest hurdle when it came to pinpointing the true state of China’s pollution.

“The most challenging parts were the investigations into the production process and the supply chain. This included investigating the effluent from the suppliers’ sewage pipes and the precise relationship between the brands and the suppliers. In Mainland China, factories don’t clearly mark their effluent pipes, so we needed to confirm which pipe belonged to which factory and then we needed to make at least five sampling trips for each factory pipe.”

“This was one of Greenpeace’s most complex investigations because the relationship between textile plants and the big brands was often opaque and it was vital that we established the relationship clearly.”

Previously, Greenpeace East Asia published a feature titled “Ten dirty tricks that factories play in China” that reveals just how sophisticated polluters are at concealing how much and how toxic their effluent is.

Despite the complexity of the investigation, Greenpeace were able to come to an extensive set of concrete conclusions that would eventually comprise two reports: “Dirty Laundry: Unraveling the corporate connections to toxic water pollution in China,” and “Dirty Laundry 2: Unraveling the toxic trail from pipes to products.”

Only then could a global campaign be rolled out involving thousands of concerned citizens and Greenpeace activists, both Chinese and overseas. The campaign would put pressure on some of the world’s biggest retail brands to phase out all hazardous chemicals by 2020. The brands that eventually came on board included heavyweights like Adidas, Puma, Nike, H&M and China's own Li-Ning. Labels with another market share and pull to transform an entire textiles industry.

Head of toxics at Greenpeace East Asia, Ma Tianjie, is adamant that China’s public has an important role to play in improving environmental standards in their country. And key to this is information disclosure. An inventory of basic information covering who is discharging what, and by how much, will allow government and non-government agencies to trace the pollution back to polluters as well as public pressure on companies and their supply chain to improve their performance.

Ma Tianjie gives an example of the positive impacts stemming from transparency in China: “In August 2011, the ministry made an unprecedented move by releasing detailed pollution information on more than 1,900 lead-acid battery facilities across the country. It was the first time that information on an entire industry's environmental performance was made public.”

“Reactions to the initiative were overwhelmingly positive. A close scrutiny of the data by the media, environmental NGOs and the public resulted in corrections and a dataset of improved quality, which would only help the ministry to better supervise the listed facilities,” Ma added. “Updated data were released again to the public in November. But no panic followed. Instead, what we got were improved data and an empowered public.”

Monica Tan is a writer and web editor for Greenpeace East Asia. Originally from Sydney, Australia, she is now based in China, working out of Greenpeace's Beijing office.