Help Grassroots Heroes Fight Toxic Pollution in China

Kristen McDonald
Date: December 20, 2021
I first met Ding Jie a decade ago when she was a college graduate taking on heavy polluters in the big city. Together we toured the city of Wuhu, located west of Shanghai on the Yangtze River in southern Anhui Province. Making our way through stagnant air and past construction rubble and urban decay, I remember resting on a wall along the Qingyi River.

Below me, a wastewater pipe was dribbling smelly sludge into a grey river. Seeing the extent of environmental destruction, I worried that Ding Jie and the small team of passionate college graduates at Wuhu Ecology Center would face great difficulty cleaning up a city steeped in such enormous pollution.  
Ding Jie is Wuhu Ecology Center’s director and under her leadership, since 2014, the group has become one of the most effective grassroots environmental organizations in China.

The group was undaunted by the challenge, but it quickly realized that it needed to make smart choices to make a real difference. “By 2013, we had settled on water pollution as one primary area of focus,” says Ding Jie.

The Center’s first target: the Qingyi River, which flows through Wuhu and is a major tributary to the Yangtze. The team invited students and government leaders to tour the river to witness first-hand its life-giving beauty in the rural hills far from the city where farmers use its water to grow prized teas. For many, this juxtaposition with the stinking river running through their city spurred a deep desire to help clean it up.

An early pioneer of river watchdogging, the team recruited citizen volunteers to monitor pollution along the river and feed their findings into a database. “Pacific Environment’s support during this stage was so important,” says Ding Jie. “We were able to grow our efforts rapidly and we started receiving industry and government recognition.”

As a result, the Qingyi River and other waterways in Wuhu are much cleaner today than they were 10 years ago. And, she says proudly, “we now regularly communicate with high officials in Wuhu about the river, and everyone knows about our program to protect the Qingyi River.”

This success has allowed the Center to tackle a whole new set of toxic pollution sources: plastics and waste incineration. “Incineration is not a single pollution problem, but one piece of a systemic problem: increasing amounts of waste, especially single-use plastics.”

This year, the Center won a landmark lawsuit against a city government for failing to properly regulate incineration facilities and their fly ash disposal. Garbage incineration produces toxic pollution and fly ash is a dangerous pollutant that often escapes regulation. What’s worse, fly ash can actually contain microplastics, which is released into the air—and people’s lungs. Wuhu Ecology Center’s win is an important milestone for transparency around the fly ash problem and a win for the health of nearby communities.

Following this important win, Ding Jie is now collaborating with other organizations across China to curb pollution from incineration. But she and her colleagues know that they must address the root cause: the alarming increase in waste in China, particularly from single-use plastics for packaging and other throw-away items.

Although the government of China issued a national “Plastic Directive” last year that seeks to reduce items like plastic bags and single-use packaging, not much has changed.

“There’s very little information about the amount of single-use plastics in the market, and that’s part of the problem,” Ding Jie explains. “Because no one knows if the bans are actually working.”

Together with ally China Zero Waste Alliance, Wuhu Ecology Center is working to fill that gap. The team’s recent research uncovered that despite new national rules establishing a reporting requirement, government agencies are not demanding businesses to report and businesses are not reporting on their own.

Wuhu Ecology Center and its allies are now using their research findings (they released a report just last week) to encourage government officials to strengthen the implementation of the single-use plastic reporting system, for example by adding penalties for non-compliance.  

Ding Jie sees this as a first step toward even bigger impact in the coming years. In 2022, her team will conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the city of Wuhu’s enforcement of the national Plastics Directive and its single-use plastic bans.

“We want to position ourselves as a frontier NGO in the areas of information transparency and plastic pollution,” says Ding Jie. “And we see a key niche for ourselves in supervising and trying to speed up our country’s response to the plastic pollution challenge.”

I look forward to returning one day soon to Wuhu to witness this work first-hand. And I’m looking forward to seeing how the Qingyi River is flourishing once again—thanks to a handful of courageous grassroots activists like Ding Jie and her team at Wuhu Ecology Center.

With a generous gift, you can help Ding Jie and leaders like her protect their communities from harm. Join us in this fight and contribute today.