I guess we're all familiar with the way that newspapers in Europe and North America report the success of China in various sectors.
The Guardian has a very strange story about recycling in China. The headline is "The UK's new rubbish dump: China", which gives you a flavour of the piece.
Commercially, the logic seems hard to fault. Containers full of garments, electronic goods and all manner of Chinese exports arrive in the UK. Rather than being returned empty, they are filled with rubbish for processing and recycling. Chinese companies employ people to sort through the rubbish, and then re-process whatever they can.
As you would expect, there is a certain amount of 'spin' on this story:
Western plastic companies are setting up in China, but some of the poorest people are employed to sort and recycle the plastic. "Plastic is now one of the biggest industries in Guangdong province, but much of the work is being done by migrant labour earning a pittance," said Martin Baker, of Greenpeace China.
"I would say that Britain is dumping its rubbish in the name of recycling. It is not responsible recycling that is being done. It is reprocessing, but the methods being used are still mostly rudimentary. There are some good factories, but on the whole it is small scale, done in backstreets with little environmental standards. People are burning plastic, sorting it by hand, the water gets polluted and it goes back into the rivers," he said.
However, read a bit further and you discover that this trade is having a positive impact:
This insatiable demand for the world's rubbish, he said, has actually boosted the British market for plastic recyclers, raising the price and making it far more worthwhile for councils to collect and not dump it in landfill. Partly because of this, more than half of all British local authorities now offer plastic recycling.
Andrew Simmons of the Peterborough-based waste charity Recoup buys millions of plastic bottles from UK councils, bales them up, and sells them to a reprocessor who then sells them on to Europe or, increasingly, to China. He rejected claims that Britain was dumping its rubbish on China and said that the environmental cost of sending bottles thousands of miles was negligible compared with making "virgin" plastic bottles from oil.
Indeed. Even if some of the Chinese companies are cutting corners, the story seems to be that more recycling is being done at a lower cost.
Of course, some British companies are losing out as a result. However, this could easily have been written in a positive way rather than the usual stuff about cheap labour, poor environmental standards and general scare-mongering.