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UPDATED: May 20, 2013 NO. 21 MAY 23, 2013
The Return of 'White Pollution'
Ban lifted on polystyrene tableware stirs controversy
By Yin Pumin

Cao Jian, Vice President of the China Plastics Processing Industry Association, was quoted by the China Chemical Industry News as saying that disposable polystyrene tableware is a cost-effective product with oil-resistant, water-resistant and thermal insulating properties. The problem of pollution, he added, could be solved by better recycling management and technology.


Since the cost of biodegradable tableware is 10 times higher than that of disposable polystyrene tableware, the lifting of the ban will have a huge impact on the biodegradable tableware market, news portal Chinanews.com reported.

Yang Weihe, a packaging expert with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, is concerned that lifting the ban on polystyrene tableware will lead to a big increase in the amount of plastic waste.

"An effective recycling system should be established before the ban is lifted," Yang said.

According to Mao Da, a co-founder of a Beijing-based independent environmental think tank, the decomposition of polystyrene tableware takes a long time and could therefore harm the ecosystem.

"The plastics just become fragmented into small pieces that go into the ocean with the rivers," Mao said. "They will harm the health of marine creatures such as turtles, which may mistakenly eat the plastics."

Dong said that the production process also causes problems.

"You can smell a pungent odor when you go near, not even into, a plant producing polystyrene boxes," Dong said. "But the plants just leave the doors open and let the smell stain the clean air."

Disposable polystyrene tableware should be included in the list of items that companies must recycle under China's Circular Economy Promotion Law, which entered into force in 2009, Mao said.

"The producers will be responsible for recycling any wasted polystyrene boxes they make," Mao said. "This is the most effective way to limit pollution produced by plastic tableware."

Furthermore, Dong also warned that many other safety issues are related to polystyrene products.

According to him, food packaging made of polystyrene is non-toxic as long as it is produced and used properly.

"But the problem is that much of the polystyrene food packaging sold and used in the market cannot meet quality standards, and some is even made of recycled plastic waste that has been used to pack refrigerators and televisions," Dong said.

Moreover, Chinese prefer hot food, which might cause polystyrene packaging to leak toxins, he said.

"Polystyrene is quite soft and will be reshaped and release toxic chemical elements when being heated in microwaves or if it contains beverages and food heated to over 70 degrees Celsius," Dong said, noting that long-term ingestion of the substance can harm human health.

In 2009, some 10 employees of a small hair salon in Shanghai's Xuhui District ordered takeout food from a nearby restaurant. They placed the dishes, which were in polystyrene boxes, in a microwave to warm them up. But even before they took a bite, the workers were struck by violent dizziness and nausea.

"Toxic substances released by heated plastic boxes seriously affected people's health," explained Fang Bangjiang, chief physician at the emergency room of the hospital that accepted the patients. "The poisons hit the patients' central nervous system, so they felt light-headed and hard to breathe."

If heated polystyrene does produce dioxins as some Chinese media reports have claimed, the heating of the once-banned food boxes could even cause cancer, he added.

The patients recovered within a few hours, but acute poisoning like this could result in worse consequences, Fang said.

According to Dong, foaming agents used in the production process are combustible and are thus dangerous.

If ignited, he said, the boxes produce toxic black vapors that jeopardize the health of people working in plants producing polystyrene tableware.

"Foaming agents are flammable. They could cause accidents in dry closed environments prone to static electricity," Dong said in one of his Sina blog posts. "But not all production plants can afford humidifiers."

He said that fire accidents caused by foaming agents had already occurred in both Beijing and Shanghai. One person, Dong said, was killed in a Beijing plant and the plant was punished with fines of more than 1 million yuan ($163,000).

Email us at: yinpumin@bjreview.com

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