Sam Bekemans is a Belgian journalist. He currently lives in London, where he conducts research into China's role in marine plastics.

China & The Global Plastic Challenge

China & The Global Plastic Challenge

In March this year, Sustainable Asia launched a new podcast series, Eight Million. Spread over five episodes, Eight Million takes you through the ins and outs of plastic waste treatment globally and in China. It’s an illuminating look at how China is closing its doors on imported plastic waste, and turning its back on industrial pollution in favour of building an ‘ecological civilisation’. China Water Risk’s Feng Hu and Yuanchao Xu are featured in Episode 2.

Sustainable Asia is a Hong Kong-based company, producing engaging audio content in collaboration with environmental groups and thought leaders. Find out more about the new podcast series below.

China is so often the target of the global blame game…
…but there is little awareness about what the economic giant is actually doing to combat this growing problem.

When we at Sustainable Asia first set out to investigate the issue of marine plastics, we realised there was an important voice missing in the debate. China is so often the target of the global blame game, but there is little awareness about what the economic giant is actually doing to combat this growing problem. By collaborating with resourceful organisations like China Water Risk, we bring this knowledge to a wider audience through audio documentaries and radio programmes.

Over the past year, we spoke with thought leaders and researchers in the fields of environmental pollution, waste management, and Chinese leadership, to paint a broad picture of where the country has come from, and where it is going. We target listeners in the West and in China, to encourage mutual understanding and facilitate collaboration.

We started off by speaking with Craig Leeson, director of the award-winning documentary A Plastic Ocean. Craig put together the funding to go shoot the first ever underwater footage of a pygmy blue whale, but when he finally found himself whale spotting off the Sri Lankan coast, he noticed the pristine waters were speckled with plastic litter. The documentary film he went on to shoot is a remarkable portrait of the current state of our oceans, and how we got there.

Craig kicks off episode one of Eight Million with a personal account of the damage he’s seen plastic inflict on wildlife. Throughout the episode, we go on to speak with members of various NGOs and universities to hear their research findings, before we come to Jenna Jambeck’s seminal research paper. American professor Jambeck and her team managed to estimate the total amount of plastic waste entering the ocean from land in 2010: the eponymous EIGHT MILLION metric tonnes.

Marcy and Craig Leeson

Marcy and Craig Leeson

The 1st season kicks off with a personal account of the damage the director of “A Plastic Ocean” has seen plastic inflict on wildlife

But we set out to do more than just confirm that our disposable lifestyle is a problem. The source of 60% of plastic marine waste lies in five Asian countries, and China is the largest contributor. Before we can understand how China aims to improve this situation, we need to know how China’s administrative system functions, from the central start to the local end of the stick. Episode two concludes with a fascinating explanation by Hong Kong’s own Christine Loh on how Chinese policy is decided and implemented.

Contributing countries

Contributing countries

The source of 60% of plastic marine waste lies in five Asian countries, & China is the largest contributor

 

Next up is China’s shocking decision to end the import of unprocessed waste, which took effect at the start of this year. Foreign exporters of recyclable solid waste were left to figure out new methods to dispose of their material. To figure out why China’s central government upended this trade, we invited Chinese zero-waste activist Mao Da to clarify the decision. His insight is at the centre of episode three of Eight Million.

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For the last two episodes of the documentary series, we investigated two possible solutions to the post-consumer waste — recycling and waste-to-energy — comparing their efficiency and sustainability. In episode four, we talk to environmental entrepreneur Doug Woodring. Doug is co-founder of the Ocean Recovery Alliance, and is based here in Hong Kong. He started working with the United Nations years ago to try to solve the problem of Ocean Plastic, and in the process has become an expert on the global recycling market.

Through the ceaseless innovation happening in product design, the recycling industry is forever catching up to new types and uses of plastic. On top of that, misconceptions make recycling hardly cost-effective, so the industry and campaigners are looking into different strategies, further detailed in episode four of Eight Million.

The final episode zooms in on waste-to-energy

In the final episode, we zoom in on waste-to-energy (WTE). China is leading the world in waste-to-energy investment. We talk to Nickolas Themelis, a global authority on WTE technology and China WTE investment at Columbia University. WTE is a quick solution for a plastic waste problem that has really gotten out of hand. But the practice attracts a lot of criticism from grassroots organisations. In episode five we allow spokespeople from both sides to lay out their arguments and we conclude with our own take on the contentious issue.

With these five episodes the listener will be up to date on plastic waste management in China and get the true picture of what China is doing to combat global plastic ocean pollution.


Find the English version on chinadialogue ocean, Sustainable Asia, iTunes, YouTube, and Spotify. A Mandarin version will be coming out soon.

Eight Million is hosted by Marcy Trent Long, and co-produced by Marcy Trent Long and Sam Bekemans. We thank our partners at Aya Recording Studio in Hong Kong, and chinadialogue ocean in London and Beijing.

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