CHINA - In response to the smog that has shrouded many parts of China, the Central government in Beijing has issued a ‘declaration of war” on polluters – and packaging is once again in the firing line. Stuart Hoggard reports.
China is choking, quite literally. The air is so thick you can literally touch it. In 17 Chinese provincial and municipal capital cities in Northeast China, smog has reached ‘Hazardous’ levels on the PM2.5 scale - an indicator of the amount of particulate matter per cubic meter in the atmosphere - hitting 1,000 micrograms miniscule particles per cubic meter; that is around 40 times the level defined by the World Health Organization as ‘safe’.
With more than 600 million people seeing and breathing grey air, it is not surprising that there has been public outcry across the country, mainly in the active Chinese social media, and there’s no way that can bow over.
The capital, Beijing, was shrouded in smog for several days during the seven-day national Lunar New Year holiday, a traditional high-tourism season when locals and visitors pour in to experience the city in what is promoted as its best season.
In Harbin, schools and airports were forced to close, traffic ground to a halt. In Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen the story is the same, traffic slows to snail pace, pedestrians wear facemasks, and children are kept indoors.
The Iron Fist
In response, the Central government in Beijing has issued a ‘declaration of war” on polluters – and packaging is once again in the firing line.
In a press conference in March 2013, Premier Li Keqiang vowed to deal with pollution, saying "we will upgrade the country's economic development model so people can enjoy clean air, and safe drinking water and food… We need to enforce the law with an iron fist."
Harsher penalties and stricter enforcement is on the table with punishments handed down to those found responsible for trying to evade inspection regulations: Those responsible for environmental pollution accidents will also face harsher punishments - senior management, up to CEO & Board level, can no longer hide behind the ‘corporate veil’ and are to be held to account personally and face prison terms.
"Western countries have spent decades trying to improve their air quality, and are still trying," said Chai Fahe, vice-president of the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences. "China is trying its best to make improvements as soon as possible, but we also need to be realistic about the hardships ahead and prepare for a protracted war against pollution. It's a war that will involve every single member of the public."
The key attack dog in this ‘war’ is The Airborne Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan, which will run from 2013-17. Enacted in September 2013, it is backed with a US$277 billion (¥1,700 billion) budget from central government.
An additional US$814 million has been allocated for air pollution treatment in the most heavily affected municipalities of Beijing and Tianjin, and the provinces of Hebei, Shanxi and Shandong, and the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. At the same time, all 17 provinces have been directed to devise and fund local anti-pollution measures.
According to the action plan, on a narrow front, China will cut coal use, shut down polluters and reinforce the implementation of the Cleaner Production Law passed in February 2012. In a broader air pollution counter measure, China is to drive industry to upgrade, eliminate overcapacity in production and tighten control over high-polluting and energy-intensive industries.
The core objective of the Airborne Pollution Action Plan is to cut the density of inhalable particulate matter by at least 10% in major cities nationwide by 2017. Specific targets for reduction have been set for Beijing and surrounding provincial areas, as well as the Yangtze Delta and the Pearl River Delta regions.
Beijing, Tianjin and surrounding areas have been piloting an air quality warning system since November 2013, and a national network to monitor the impact of air pollution is to be established within three to five years.
"China is highly dependent on coal” (that’s the main culprit) according to Ma Zhong, dean and professor at the School of Environment and Natural Resources, at Renmin University of China. “It accounts for almost 70% of China’s total energy capacity and consumption.
“The most important task at present is to reduce coal consumption. By the end of 2014, Beijing will build four power and heating stations to replace coal with natural gas for heating and power generation.”
Coal is not the only source of polluting particulates though. Motor vehicle emissions account for 22.2% of Beijing's PM2.5 particles; many of the measures are aimed at reducing emissions from cars, and the Beijing Municipal Government is planning a congestion charge system.
Under a Heavy Air Pollution Emergency Response Program, Beijing drivers will only be allowed to use their cars on alternate days when a Red Air Pollution Alert has been issued, with cars with odd and even license plates using the road in turn.
Taking action across China
Other heavily polluted regions in China are also looking at ways to combat air pollution.
The Tianjin Municipal Government, which neighbours the capital, has imposed controls on coal consumption, vehicles, dust and industrial pollution, and has announced more than 66 specific measures and 2,055 anti-pollution programs since the National Action Plan was announced.
Hebei Province has launched programmes to make energy consumption more efficient and is upgrading its industrial infrastructure structure. Coal consumption will be reduced by 40 million tons in winter and next spring 2014-15, and surveillance cameras have been installed in 95% of construction sites to monitor, identify and bust dust in urban areas.
Shanxi Province has 2,089 programs to improve air quality, which is backed by a US$70 billion (¥430 billion) war chest – that’s in addition to national government finding. By the end of 2017, all the coal-fired boilers and kilns in the province will be removed from industrial zones, and steel production will be reduced by 6 million tons.
The Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region is developing desulfurization, denitrification and dust removing facilities in coal-fired plants; steel mills and cement plants are to gradually replace decentralized coal-fired boilers in industry clusters.
At a recent press conference on the Shanghai ’s Clean Air Action Plan (2013-2017), Wu Qizhou, deputy director of the Shanghai Environmental Protection Bureau, announced, “Shanghai spends around 3% of the city’s GDP on environmental measures.”
Gravure under attack
The government’s Action Plan also calls for a massive reduction in the use of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC), specifically those used by the printing and packaging industries.
More or less successfully eradicated in the developed print world, VOCs are still in common use in China. Chinese gravure printers have for years refused to abandon the use of toluene, or even worse, benzene, as solvents and convert to water (aqueous) based inks, despite threats from foreign multinational brand owners such as PepsiCo and P&G to withdraw contracts form solvent abusers.
“It is a lazy printer’s tool,” said the head of packaging from one major brand owner, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Solvents thin the inks, making them easier to lay down on a substrate.” In Europe, solvent inks are banned from food packaging, and these days are rarely used in other non-food products.
The Plan is to promote the purchase of modern state-of-the-art coating and print processes to optimize print technology and equipment and expand organic waste gas treatment systems. Solvent-based coating processes must be confined to operations with efficient collection and recycling of organic waste gas purification facilities are to be reduced by 90%, to ensure that discharge standards are maintained
Since 2013, Shanghai’s key industries claim to have managed to reduce annual VOC emissions by about 10%, a cumulative 50% reduction from 2012 levels.
Packaging and printing industry must comply with the environmental requirements, including strict implementation of emission standards for VOC related industries, clean production evaluation and environmental engineering technical specifications.
Shanghai is taking no prisoners; it is now updating the list of industry sectors and specific companies targeted for “elimination”. Wu Qizhou recently announced that the city “is working hard to eliminate out dated industrial facilities and we are able to finish the task set by the national government this year.”