China 2012 – Rumination #4 – On Air Quality, Cleanliness

Travelling to a developing country as populous as China, we were fully prepared to adjust our expectations when it came to cleanliness of public spaces. What we discovered in our three weeks there, at ground level at least, pleasantly surprised both of us.

As a whole, street-level cleanliness of Chinese cities matches or surpasses that of North American cities, the beneficiary, no doubt, of an inexhaustible work force and a government determined to see no one out of work. Shop keepers greet the morning by scrubbing down the sidewalks and curbs in front of their businesses, partly, I assume, out of tradition, and partly out of necessity – to remove the previous day’s grime (deposited by the thick air).

But by far the lion’s share of credit goes to the millions of public employees who constantly sweep the streets, roads, and even expressways. Halfway through a two-hour bus ride up Mt. Emei, we encountered folks sweeping the winding mountain road free of leaves. We even saw workers wiping down the metal railings of elevated expressways. Their efforts – and their results – are evident everywhere.

So, with the exception of a brief drive through an industrial area near Suzhou, we saw none of the piles of garbage that we experienced within the streets of, say, Pune in India. Admittedly, walking down an Asian street still offers some experiences that will take some North Americans by surprise. Sanitary sewers are not closed systems in China, so a walk past a manhole cover can offer up a whiff of something rather unpleasant.

On the topic of sewage systems, I suppose I should mention public toilets.  First of all, the biggest upside is that there are public toilets, a concept that has faded in recent decades in North America. As for their condition and cleanliness, the most accurate description might be “variable.” While men’s toilets do have urinals, the toilets themselves are, of course, limited to “squatters” with the exception of the occasional handicapped-accessible toilet, which may have one western-style biffy. Individual toilet stalls don’t usually have toilet paper in them, but there is often a tissue dispenser near the entrance. Don’t expect these to be replenished at all times; having some tissues or a roll of toilet paper on you is advisable. Soap is a hit-and-miss affair, and often when it’s available, it’s been so watered down as to be useless. Irene had some “soap leaves,” thin wafers of soap that we used as backup. Few public toilets have paper towel for drying hands. They do usually have air hand dryers, but these are so quirky and unreliable that most people just give their hands a shake and walk away. Overall, public toilets are not a place one is tempted to linger for any length of time, but as two old farts who spent at least part of our youth without indoor plumbing, we coped just fine.

One further side note on the unpleasant subject of sewage, and then I’ll move on. For some curious reason, Chinese building codes (if such things exist) do not require traps on floor drains, so on more than one occasion we smelled whiffs of sewer gas drifting out of the floor drains in our hotel bathrooms. We soon developed the strategy of throwing the bath mat over the floor drain to minimize this.

Back at street level, there is the much-publicized act of public spitting, so you may prefer to dodge that mysterious little puddle on the sidewalk. From things we’d heard before our arrival, we were actually prepared for this to be much worse. I won’t say that it doesn’t happen, but it was much less frequent than I’d expected. In actual fact, I found the preamble – a rather loud, boisterous combination of hacking, horking and snorting – far more disturbing than the spitting itself. And, at the risk of sounding sexist, for me, it was worse to hear women making these sounds in public.

But I also took a philosophical approach to the practice. I mean, seriously, is it really any worse than the cowboy booger blast? You know what I mean – that practice of deftly pinching one nostril shut with a thumb or index finger, tilting the head just right to avoid your own clothing, and then, with a well-timed snort, sending a snot-rocket skittering across the snow or dust. If a ball of snot falls out on the lone prairie, is it really any better than a gob of spit on a crowded street? And just in case you’re wondering, the booger blast isn’t a strictly western tradition; I saw elderly Chinese women execute it with considerable skill.

While the streets were, for the most part, clean, looking up from street level was another matter. Older high-rises and apartment buildings had a certain grimy appearance, not really surprising considering the quality of the air. I think I can safely say that our biggest disappointment on this trip was having our view perpetually obscured by the haze that envelopes most Chinese cities. If you need an experience to trigger a sense of urgency about greenhouse gases and global warming, a trip to China will certainly do that for you.

And if you’re from Saskatchewan, it should also trigger some fairly serious guilt. 77% of China’s electricity is coal-generated. That’s similar to the percentage for Saskatchewan. But here’s the kicker: China’s per capita emissions of carbon stand at around 7.2 tonnes of carbon. By comparison, Saskatchewan’s per capita emissions – get ready for this – are almost ten times that much: just shy of 70 tonnes of greenhouse gases for every man, woman and child in our province. That means that if we were as densely populated as China, you probably couldn’t see your neighbour’s house across the street. So it’s a bit hard to get on a self-righteous soap box and demand that China do something about its emissions. The only thing we have going for us that the Chinese do not is the good luck to live in a part of the world that’s so sparsely populated.

Alternative solutions are never simple or without costs of their own.  Witness the Three Gorges Dam. Originally designed to supply 10% of China’s electrical demand, it now only satisfies 3% due to economic growth. On the bright side, it does take the place of 31,000,000 tons of coal being burnt each year. That comes at an immense human cost, though. The project displaced 1.5 million people.

As well as their reliance on dirty coal for electricity, Chinese cities are increasingly clogged with automobiles purchased by a burgeoning middle class. As the economy grows, this will only increase.  Some cities have come up with creative – if somewhat feeble – strategies to deal with the congestion and pollution. Both Beijing and Xi’an restrict travel within the inner city according to license plate number. As an example, on one day in Xi’an, we had to take a taxi to meet our driver because he couldn’t enter the inner city; his “number was up,” so to speak.

To combat this pollution, the Chinese have embarked on massive “greening” projects. Everywhere we went, we saw newly planted trees planted along roadways. But the Chinese don’t just plant little saplings; most of the new plantings are mature sycamores with 5-6″ diameter trunks. These are supported by large tripods until their roots can take hold. To their credit, the Chinese are far less likely to indulge in the convenience of paving over areas that might otherwise be inconvenient to maintain. Highways and expressways are flanked by trees and pruned hedges. Even the boulevards between opposing lanes of traffic are fully planted, so thickly that one can’t even see the traffic going the opposite direction. They stabilize slopes and grades with open concrete gridwork, which accommodates drainage, but also allows them to then plant vines and other plant material. Vines even climb up the concrete pillars of elevated expressways. In short, everywhere they can plant something to improve appearances and mitigate carbon emissions they do. Still, absorbing carbon from the atmosphere is a full-time job for a tree in China. In cities like Luoyang, grime coated the leaves so thickly it was hard to imagine they could absorb anything.

We had assumed that air quality had declined in recent years, but Michael, our guide in Shanghai, assured us that both air and water quality had improved considerably over the past 10-15 years. So, perhaps these greening efforts have already reaped some rewards.

Of course, they are able to maintain these areas because they have an inexhaustible supply of cheap labour. Lining hedges with mile upon mile of pruned hedges wouldn’t be cost-effective in North America, but it is in China.

Needless to say, China still has a long way to go to find a balance between rapidly increasing economic growth and a clean environment. Let’s hope, for all our sakes, that they find the solutions. And then let’s look at ourselves in the mirror and follow their lead.

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