China’s new wastelands

In the middle ground between booming cities and rural villages, rubbish is causing friction. Yang Chuanmin visits a Shanghai family, who blame a plastics-recycling centre for the death of their child.

Lu Junyi and Wang Qin’s second child, Wang Bole, was 15 months old when he was diagnosed with acute leukaemia. He died before his second birthday. The couple’s firstborn, Lu Chenxi, was found to have tuberous sclerosis at three months. Today, he has learning difficulties and suffers from autonomic epilepsy and other health complications. 

The children were born in Nanmen village, in Shanghai’s Songjiang district. Between 2008 and 2010, their father Lu Junyi submitted eight complaints to the local government about waste-water and gases released by the nearby Zhaohong Plastics Recycling Facility during the shredding and cleaning of plastics. But by the time the facility – located 60 metres from their home – was ordered to close, Wang Bole’s illness had already been diagnosed. 

Nanmen is typical of rapidly urbanising China. The villages closest to cities, and with the best transport links, have, over the last two decades, become hubs for handling urban waste. China lacks a comprehensive system for the classification and processing of rubbish, and reusable waste and unwanted goods are collected by scrap merchants, who then sell it on in these villages. This helps to boost recycling rates, but the growth of this practice and a lack of supervision mean waste-processing centres located in the middle ground between rural and urban China – places like Nanmen – can become new sources of pollution. 

Lu Junyi and Wang Qin say that there is no history of genetic problems, cancer or leukaemia in their family. After consulting experts and doing his own online research, Lu concluded that his children’s diseases may have been caused by the recycling plant. His view is bolstered by the fact other families have also been affected by illness: in the last eight years, 11 close neighbours have contracted cancer. 

The Zhaohong Recycling Facility, owned by Yao Zhaohong from northern Jiangsu province, leased land from the village committee around the time Lu Chenxi was born. The villagers say that, from that point on, the facility, which was always surrounded by mountains of plastic waste, started releasing waste-water and gases – and didn’t stop. 

But Lu has no further evidence to show that the plastics processing and his sons’ illnesses are linked. 

Nanmen village falls within Chedun township, in Shanghai’s Songjiang district, and is typical of the border lands between urban and rural areas. Its proximity to the city means it is well-placed logistically, and the township has long been a centre for waste collection. 

Shanghai has gradually enveloped and absorbed surrounding villages. But where that urbanisation process is not yet complete, industry and agriculture are found mixed together. In Nammen, you see large trucks, often laden with steel wire and other waste, driving past green fields. The Zhaohong plant used to be one of their destinations, the only one in Nanmen specialising in plastics. 

Leasing out land is one of Nanmen’s main sources of income, explains village committee chief Tang Jianlin. The 500-square metre plot formerly occupied by the recycling centre used to be a threshing ground. Zhaohong leased the land for around 5,000 yuan (US$773) a year – only some 40,000 yuan (US$6,200) over the eight years the facility was in operation. Income also comes from providing accommodation for the incoming workers: each household can make more than 1,000 yuan (US$155) a month. 

But the villagers don’t believe that this income makes up for the losses caused by pollution. 

The Zhaohong plant obtained a recycling license from the Songjiang industrial and commercial authorities in 2002. Throughout its eight years in operation, locals were subjected to the constant noise of plastic being shredded, while the facility pumped out sweet and sour-smelling gases and dark brown waste-water. 

The shredding and cleaning of plastics can produce a range of pollutants, including benzenes – long-lasting and highly toxic organic contaminants. In the 1970s, a survey carried out by China’s Ministry of Health found that workers in the benzene industry had much higher rates of leukaemia than a control group. In 1987, benzene-induced leukaemia was one of the first eight industrial diseases to be formally recognised in China. 

There are strict rules for plastics shredding and processing. According to plastics industry standards published by the former State Environmental Protection Agency (now the Ministry of Environmental Protection), plastics recyclers must have water and gas treatment equipment. The Zhaohong facility did not. 

Lu Junyi complained online to the mayor’s office twice in 2008, using his real name. Wang Bole was due to be born in six months, and the situation was urgent. He wrote: “The cause of Lu Chenxi’s illness has not yet been explained, and we suspect it is related to pollution. Now my wife is pregnant again, and we hope for a speedy resolution.”

Besides Lu Chenxi, 11 people living in the 40 or 50 homes within 200 metres of the plant have contracted leukaemia or cancer of the digestive tract or lung. Most of them live close to each other. On March 5, 2010, the Songjiang Centre for Disease Control carried out a preliminary survey of cancer suffers in the village, and confirmed the 11 cases. According to figures from the centre, 21 people in Nanmen’s 410 households were diagnosed with malignant tumours between 2003 and 2008. Of these, half are Lu Junyi’s close neighbours – you can see their homes from his yard. 

The report from the centre says that, as the overall cancer rate in the village is lower than the average for Songjiang, it cannot be concluded that the illnesses have been caused by pollution from the recycling plant. 

The Zhaohong plant received its recycling license in 2002, but subsequently operated outside the scope of that authorisation and cleaned, shredded and processed plastics. Industry regulations say plastics processing must be approved by the environmental authorities. 

In 2008, the Songjiang environmental protection bureau discovered shredders and cleaning tools at the plant, but Yao Zhaohong made a written statement saying that waste was only being collected, not processed. In May 2009, the bureau found that the plant was still cleaning and processing plastics and releasing untreated waste-water. It was fined 5,000 yuan (US$773). 

On April 1, 2010 the Shanghai environmental protection bureau announced on its website that it had discovered that the plant had not submitted the required environmental impact assessment, and was engaged in the shredding and processing of PVC panels and PPC pipes. 

A month later, the plant was forced to leave Nanmen. 

Nanmen village committee is both the local government body and Zhaohong’s former landlord. As such, it should have had been able to stop the pollution. According to its deputy chief, Zhu Xiuzhong, if the committee becomes aware of illegal activity on its land, it can report the case to the relevant authorities and terminate the lease. This is all set out in the written contract. According to committee members, in 2009 they asked Zhaohong’s senior management to move the facility out of Nanmen for the sake of the village’s development. But that did not happen promptly. 

The facts are clear – the pollution from this privately operated facility was allowed to continue for far too long.

In 2011, Lu Junyi’s family launched civil lawsuits against the Zhaohong facility and the Nanmen village committee, as well as administrative suits against Shanghai environmental, industrial and commercial authorities, on the grounds that these parties failed to fulfil their duties. From the outset, they were not confident of victory and, indeed, have lost at every stage so far – but they are determined to continue with the appeals process. 

As China’s cities expand, the lines between industrial and residential areas are blurring. Two years ago, residents near two plastics companies in Songjiang sued the company over the release of waste gases. The suit, handled by lawyer Hu Wei, who is also representing Lu Junyi, ended when the government intervened and closed the firms down – a rare victory. 

A new round of urban planning will see Nanmen become a part of a second new town in Songjiang. The residents will be relocated and the fields and the polluted stream swallowed up by the city. But for one family, the pain will not end. 

Yang Chuanmin is a reporter at Southern Metropolis Daily, and joint winner of the in-depth reporting category at the 2011 China Environmental Press Awards.

This article was first published by Southern Metropolis Daily.

Homepage image from Southern Metropolis Daily shows piled up plastic outside the Zhaohong recycling plant.