The rise of plastic insecurity in China's Yangtze River Economic Belt | Greenbiz (2023)

The third longest river in the world has played a major role in the pastto unite north and south Chinaand was a key factor in the country's export-oriented, low-cost industrialization. The river serves as a major economic center for the region, carrying up to42 percent of the country's GDPby shipping, trade and agriculture. But this economic development has come at a high price for China's environment.

90 percent of all ocean plasticis carried by just 10 rivers, eight of which are found in Asia - and the Yangtze River in China is by far the worst culprit.

There's a big pollution problem, with333,000 tonsPlastic is carried into the oceans from the Yangtze every year. It's a problem for a third of China's population, who depend on the Yangtze for food and water. In addition, the problem has grown over the years due to increased population growth as the Yangtze River borders the Yangtze RiverNodes with very high population, including Shanghai (22 million), Wuhan (9.8 million) and Chongqin (7.5 million). China's rapid economic development has also brought about a change in consumer lifestyles as more and more people consume products made or packaged with plastic.

Although plastic pollution is a global problem, waste management is oneless effectivein China than other major plastic producing countries such as Japan or the United States due to high levels of informal waste collection, a lack of enforcement of waste legislation at the sub-national level, and less waste segregation. Until recently, China wasImport of plastics from overseas marketsthat are labeled as recycled but, due to a lack of local recycling capacity, are either incinerated, sent to landfill, or dumped directly into rivers like the Yangtze, eventually making their way into the sea. This problem is even more acute in rural areas with a severe lack of waste treatment facilities.

Plastic pollution in rivers like the Yangtze could have major impacts on water security, fish stock depletion and overall political stability in the Asia-Pacific region.

Increased water insecurity

China is home20 percent of the world's population, but has access to only 7 percent of unfrozen freshwater resources. Water shortages are being exacerbated in China due to low irrigation water costs in rural areas to support government policies aimed at alleviating falling rural incomes. As a result, water efficiency rates tend to be low, compounding an already acute water crisis. Faced with the lack of available water in northern China, the government has embarked on an ambitious pathSouth-North water diversion projectto divert up to 44.8 billion cubic meters of water from the Yangtze to northern regions.

Water shortages are being exacerbated in China due to low irrigation water costs in rural areas to support government policies aimed at alleviating falling rural incomes.

However, with increasing plastic pollution in the Yangtze, this project could be at risk in the long term.

The fashion industry exemplifies the problem posed by China's rapid industrialization in relation to its water security.Over 80 percent of China's man-made fibers (PDF)are produced in the Yangtze River economic belt, but have a dismal recycling rate of just 1 percent. These man-made fibers are a major source of microfiber (a form of plastic) pollution, most of which ends up in the oceans and contributes to the global plastic crisis. The Chinese government has begun appointing to take action on this frontLocal party members as river chiefs responsible for water qualityin their jurisdictions, charging a fee on single-use plastic bags, and moving the most polluting chemical plants off the Yangtze River. But water scarcity isn't the only way plastic pollution could hit China.

Rising political tensions

Plastic pollution could also have a serious impact on fish stocks in the Asia-Pacific region, which are already facing overfishing and changes related to global climate change, including rising temperatures and ocean acidification. The effects of plastic pollution on marine biodiversity are well documented, with UNEP estimating that marine ecosystems are suffering13 billion dollarsa year of damage from plastic waste. Besides theAsia-Pacific Economic Communityestimates that the cost to the region's fishing, tourism and shipping industries is approximately $1.3 billion.

Plastic pollution alone may not be enough to spark geopolitical tensions, but when coupled with illegal fishing, it could potentially strain already fragile diplomatic ties between Asian nations. The South China Sea dispute is an example of where China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam are already fighting over sea borders due to the region's rich oil and gas reserveslucrative fish stocks.

With the import ban on many types of plastic at the beginning of 2018, China's Ministry of Ecology and Environment has also significantly increased the pressure on other Asian countries to tackle this problem. This is no coincidenceMalaysia, Vietnam and Thailand (PDF)have seen their plastic waste imports surge and are struggling to cope with the extra volume.

See plastic pollution as a regional problem

An effective way to reduce plastic pollution and mitigate its impact is for China to work with other countries in the region to monitor the extent of the pollution problem and share data to inform policymakers about pollution hotspots that are affecting them can make decisions.

China is not alone in this crisis. Indonesia is the second-biggest emitter of mishandled public waste after China, and East Asia as a whole is the hardest-hit region in the world. China has an opportunity to demonstrate its leadership in the entire plastics chain.

Indonesia is the second-biggest emitter of mishandled public waste after China, and East Asia as a whole is the hardest-hit region in the world.

At the national level, China'sMinistry of Science and Technologyhas already begun increasing its funding for scientific projects aimed at collecting data on the extent of pollution in coastal areas and in major rivers like the Yangtze. Another solution that the Chinese government has promoted is fundingwaste incineratorsnot only burn the plastic, but convert it into energy according to the BECCs model.

However, this solution is hampered by poor waste segregation, which reduces the efficiency of the conversion process and could potentially release more toxins into the air. Furthermore, both initiatives, while commendable, need to be coupled with larger regional initiatives. TheCoral Triangle Initiative(CTI) could serve as a model for regional cooperation on plastic pollution. The CTI sees countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines committing to work together to manage fisheries and creates links with local communities to promote sustainable livelihoods. Similarly, plastic-focused coalitions, connecting civil society and the public and private sectors, are critical to sharing best practices and implementing oversight institutions that can coordinate sustainability initiatives.

China is at a crossroads on its development path. It still has time to effectively address its urgent plastic pollution crisis, but it needs to rethink the way it values ​​its water resources. With scarcer and more polluted water, there is a real risk of increasing political tensions between communities, not just within China but across the continent.

The South China Sea dispute is a living testament to how competition for scarce resources can fuel political disputes between states. More regional efforts are needed to avoid prolonging a crisis that, like air pollution, could fuel social unrest and destabilize the Chinese region in the long term.

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