Eight Million: China & The Global Plastic Challenge

By Marcy Trent Long, Sam Bekemans 18 April, 2018

Long & Bekemans introduce a new podcast series

5 episodes in total focusing on ocean plastic waste from its damage to wildlife to China's policies & its waste ban
Hear from experts on these topics, incl. director Leeson, Hong Kong's Loh & Woodring plus CWR's own Hu & Xu
The series ends by focusing on two possible solutions to post-consumer waste: recycling & waste-to-energy

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.

Eight Million

“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.

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

Marcy and Craig Leeson
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.

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

Contributing countries (2)
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.
Mass of river plastic
Plastic Waste Vector For Change
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.

Further Reading

  • Ministry Reform: 9 Dragons To 2 – What does China’s long-awaited ministry re-shuffle mean – who manages what and how? China Water Risk’s Woody Chan and Yuanchao Xu review the roles and impacts of the new Ministry of Ecological Environment & Ministry of Natural Resources
  • Connecting A New Generation Of Businesses To Water Stewardship – The CEO Water Mandate updated its Water Stewardship Toolbox. Their Peter Schulte shares how it now better connects companies to useful water stewardship resources, including tailored filters based on individual risks & needs
  • Water Stewardship: The Bright Dairy & Food Case – Chinese dairy mega company, Bright Dairy & Food, successfully used water footprint assessments to better water stewardship. Tongji University’s Hongtao Wang and Jin Xu along with WWF China’s Aihui Yang guide us through the case study
  • Rising To The Water Challenge – Barclays analyst Zachary Sadow shares key findings from their report with the Columbia Water Center on how US energy companies and public utilities can help alleviate water shortages through new tech and practices
  • Barclays-Tsinghua China Water Summit: Key Takeaways – The Barclays-Tsinghua University China Water Summit brought together industry leaders, corporations, investors and academics to discuss water solutions for China and Asia. Barclays analyst Zachary Sadow recaps key views from the summit
  • Plastic, China & The Circular Economy – Only ~10% of plastics gets recycled, but this is where opportunities lie. Doug Woodring, founder of Plasticity Forum, shares key points from the 5th annual forum on the circular future of plastic
  • Plastic Waste: The Vector For Change? – USD13billion is the annual cost of impact of plastic pollution to our oceans. Doug Woodring, founder of Ocean Recovery Alliance, shares challenges ahead and strategies for a plastics-free ocean
  • Circular Economy: From Theory To Action – As we move outside the ‘safe operating space of our planetary boundaries’, Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Nick Jeffries explores what is a circular economy & implications for water
  • Fashion to Solve China’s Plastic Problem – With most PET made for fibres and not bottles, fashion is a big contributor to the plastic problem but it can also be part of the solution as Sondra Kim from Waste2Wear tells us. The company turns plastic waste into sustainable & high quality clothes
Marcy Trent Long
Author: Marcy Trent Long
After a fifteen-year career in energy finance and environmental policy roles with NGO and corporate sectors, Marcy founded Sustainable Asia to bring research on Asia environmental issues to life through audio documentaries. Sustainable Asia recently launched EIGHT MILLION in partnership with chinadialogue and AYA Recording Studio. Marcy is a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University and Wharton. She is an energy advisor to WWF HK and host to Sustainable Asia feature on RTHK. Marcy is fluent in English, Mandarin and Spanish.
Read more from Marcy Trent Long →
Sam Bekemans
Author: Sam Bekemans
Sam Bekemans is research director at Sustainable Asia. He holds an MA in China Studies and Sustainable Development. Sam reported on Chinese current affairs for Belgian media, before dedicating himself to the production of EIGHT MILLION - an audio documentary series on China's role in plastic marine pollution.
Read more from Sam Bekemans →