China is courting environmental disaster in its rush to industrialize, but China is also known to be addressing some of its environmental problems. Which is winning, industrialization or the environment? Here I offer several examples that contrast Chinese and Western environmental practices, including recent revelations from The Washington Post about the Chinese industrial plants that supply polycrystalline silicon for solar panels.
First, some personal anecdotes: I once worked with several industry insiders who had visited a Chinese chemical plant. The story they told was that that local plant manager acted like a Warlord, complete with bodyguards and a local police force that appeared to be a private army; it was clearly dangerous for local villagers to protest any suspected toxic waste dumping or other activities by the plant, and jail, or worse, might be the consequence. The visit was, in many ways, a disturbing experience for the Western scientists and engineers.
More recent stories, including some on my environmental blog, Chemistry for a sustainable world, have continued to add to concerns about China's environmental practices, even though there are signs that, at least in some cases, official or corporate protection of the environment is improving in China. As a sign of growing awareness, but not effective action, I was also told during a recent interview with Chinese author Qiu Xiaolong that certain restaurants in China are now claiming to soak live fish and sea food in "clean water" for several days to wash out toxic chemicals. This is not a technique that I would expect to be very successful, even if it does indicated increased awareness. The title of this article is a reference to Qiu Xiaolong's great novel about corruption in China, When Red is Black
Now, we have new information from reporter Ariana Eunjung Cha of the Washington Post, who published the March 9th, 2008 story “Solar Energy Firms Leave Waste Behind in China”. From this story, we learn about the Chinese response to the world's hunger for polysilicon, short for polycrystalline silicon, a material used to make most solar panels in use today. According the Washington Post’s article, this demand for polysilicon has caused its price to increase by more than a factor of ten in the past five years, and the rush to meet market demands has led to many new polysilicon plants being built in China. Such plants include the Luoyang Zhonggui High-Technology Company’s facility “located in the central plains of Henan Province near the Yellow River,” a major subject of Ms. Cha’s article. The article explains that, in addition to supplying the growing worldwide need for solar panels, these new polysilicon plants have created serious environmental problems, mainly for poor Chinese villagers who live in the rural areas where Chinese chemical plants spring up. These plants are typically located outside normal tourist routes, and operate outside the law, or the stated laws and policies of the Chinese National Government.