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Boxes of poison?

2013-03-27 09:54 Global Times     Web Editor: Sun Tian comment

Once upon a time, rivers and railway lines across China were littered with white foam food containers, which when microwaved, had the potential to cause toxic poisoning. They were banned over a decade ago but inexplicably, this February, instead of taking more effective measures to enforce the ban, China's National Development and Reform Committee (NDRC) said the ban would be lifted.

The NDRC's seemingly sudden decision to lift the ban on the non-biodegradable containers provoked outrage from environmental activists and netizens.

"The agency banned plastic-foam boxes 14 years ago without detailed explanations, and now lifted the ban again without providing any substantial reasons," wrote one Sina Weibo user. "How can I be convinced that it has made the right decision?"

The NDRC then published a list of five reasons last week explaining why the ban was lifted.

The statement said that the commission had asked the National Institute of Nutrition and Food Safety, under the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, to test the plastic-foam dinnerware and the results showed that it is "compliant with related national food wrapping standards."

The agency also said that the plastics, which were once called "white pollution," could be recycled to make construction materials, paints and stationery, and that many other countries, including the US, the European Union and Japan, had been using these products for years.

The statement also said that the boxes are thin and lightweight so they don't require too many resources to produce, and that fewer people are likely to dispose the plastics on the street or along the railways because the public now has a better sense of environmental protection than it did 14 years ago.

"Currently, related agencies are working out a system for production license management, a list of criteria for companies that are interested in entering the industry, a recycling regime, measures to protect the environment, and supervision and law enforcement," the statement said.

The NDRC did not respond to Global Times enquiries by press time.

Hidden risks

On a busy day in the autumn of 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 white plastic boxes, in a microwave to warm them up. But even before they took a bite, the workers were struck by violently strong feelings of dizziness and nausea.

"Toxic substances released by the heated plastic boxes seriously affected these people," 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 found it hard to breathe."

When polystyrene is heated to a temperature of 65 C or more, it releases chemicals that can cause poisoning, Fang said. If heated polystyrene does indeed produces dioxins as some Chinese media reports have claimed, the heating-up 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 told the Global Times.

A Beijing resident surnamed Liu told the Global Times that her colleagues eat food from plastic-foam boxes, made of polystyrene and foaming agent, almost every day.

"They eat rice, soup noodles and even takeaway hotpot from the plastic boxes," said Liu, who works as a real estate agent.

"We take our own lunch boxes made of steel which is safe to warm up," Fang said.

Dong Jinshi, secretary-general of the International Food Packaging Association, said that foaming agents are combustible and are thus dangerous.

If the boxes are lit up, he told the Global Times, they produce black smog that jeopardizes the health of people working on production plants for polystyrene tableware.

"Foaming agent is flammable and can easily light on fire. They could cause accidents in dry closed environments prone to static electricity such as production plants for disposable polystyrene boxes," Dong said in one of his Sina blog posts. "But not all producers can afford to install machines to add humidity to the plants."

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 company was punished with fines of over a million yuan ($160,981).

White pollution

The NDRC banned polystyrene and foaming agent boxes 14 years ago after they had become known as "white pollution" littering China's railways. Passengers on trains constantly throw these boxes, often containing instant noodles and prepared food, out of the windows, causing the white plastics to pile up along railways and river banks.

Mao Da, a co-founder of a Beijing-based independent environmental think tank, told the Global Times that the decomposition of plastic-form dinnerware 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 mistakenly eat the plastics."

Dong told the Global Times that the production process also causes problems.

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

Disposable plastic-foam 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.

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

  Public out of the loop

Many netizens on the microblogging service, Sina Weibo, expressed their anger toward the change, calling it "sudden" and "unreasonable."

"My trust in the NDRC and China's food safety has dropped to zero," wrote another Weibo user.

According to Mao, the NDRC made the decision without holding any public hearings. This, he said, harmed the agency's credibility.

"It's a reversal of the democratic decision-making process that China has been trying to build," Mao said. "It was a very disappointing act."

Dong echoed Mao, saying that the public's opinions have to be embedded in future decision-making process, to avoid skepticism from the public and criticism from experts.

"The government needs to open up venues, such as online forums, e-mail or fax, for the public to voice their opinions on a big decision like this, which might seriously impact the environment and people's health," Dong said.

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