China’s great leap greenward

Bamboo Paper

There are two Chinas: the China that is one of our worst nightmares — the one that could build a horde of coal-fired power plants to feed electricity to its burgeoning factories, and to the homes of a newly prosperous population, plants that would add immeasurably to global warming; or the China that Ed Lowans has glimpsed as a environmental consultant — one that is recognizing that good environmental solutions are much more efficient, inexpensive, and productive than those that brought prosperity to the West.

Lowans, 51, is president of Lowans and Stephens, a firm of environmental consultants in Toronto, hired by K and M International Inc., of Markham, to check the environmental credentials of paper dishes made from bamboo, which K and M plans to market as substitutes for polystyrene take-out containers. The principals in K and M are Canadians, originally from Hong Kong.

There are one or two final things that Lowans needs to check before he can hand his final report to K and M. But already he is sure that the bamboo paper is at least as environmentally acceptable as paper dishes made from Canadian trees. But he wants to be able to say it’s more acceptable.

The polystyrene coffee cups and take-out dishes that are so prevalent in Canada, are the least acceptable of all choices, he says. They’re a petroleum product, and so are made from a non-renewable source. Plus it takes a long time for them to biodegrade naturally — years if they’re in sunlight, decades if they’re not.

And finally, although polystyrene can be recycled at a cost comparable to paper, transporting it to recycling centres is an environmental problem. Polystyrene is extremely bulky — there’s a lot of air in it. So only limited amounts can be packed into trucks for transporting. And that means a lot of trucks burning a lot of fuel, and emitting a lot of greenhouse gases.

On the other hand, says Lowans, paper cups and dishes made from bamboo have advantages over those made from Canadian trees.

For instance, bamboo fibres are hollow. Consequently they have great, natural, insulating capacities. In addition they have a high silica content, so that when bamboo paper is compressed, the surface becomes hard, almost glazed. As a result, bamboo paper doesn’t need to be coated with the petrochemical waxes needed by conventional paper dishes in order to make them non-absorptive. Finally, says Lowans, bamboo paper dishes can be used in microwave ovens.

Lowans travelled to China to check that fair labour practices are used in the manufacture of bamboo paper, and that bamboo is being harvested and  processed in sustainable ways. He reports that, in both cases, they are.

But in travelling through the heart of China, west from Shanghai 1,600 kilometres to the bamboo forest, he was stunned at the extent and vitality of business development. (Lowans’ original academic training was as an economic historian).

The people running factories are young, 30-year-old, university-educated entrepreneurs, he says. « They aren’t fettered by thinking things should be done as they always have been. They’re much more prepared to take risks.’’

And most important of all, he says, « They see the convergences.’’ They see how good environmental practices make excellent business sense. For instance, they realize that if they buy high efficiency electric motors, only half as many power plants will have to be built.

They are promoting cell telephones to avoid installing the multitude of telephone lines that exist in the West. And they are looking into private power generation for clusters of factories that will share the resulting heat and electricity.

In short, says Lowans, they want to go immediately to advanced infrastructures without going through the intermediary stages followed by the West. « They’re putting as much work into developing (hydrogen) fuel cells as we are,’’ he says.

Admittedly, Lowans’ view of China was limited and anecdotal. And China faces enormous problems in financing infrastructure development. But the snapshot he offers certainly is encouraging.

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