Written by Ben Flores
This was my first visit to the city of Qinhuangdao. I had been particularly looking forward to this part of our program because I had been studying the city’s industrial makeup for nearly two years. Whether from one of my school’s libraries, or one of New Haven’s coffee shops, or from my desk at home, I spent countless hours collecting environmental, economic, and demographic data from afar on this city which I had never visited. Finally being able to go to the city brought me a certain degree of closure, although our work in Qinhuangdao is far from over.
Qinhuangdao is a very interesting example because it’s the city where top-level government officials travel during the summer for meetings and relaxation, and many locals from the likes of Beijing, Tianjin and elsewhere are attracted as well. The tourism industry’s need for good environmental quality stands in conflict with the strong presence of heavy industry in the province of Hebei where Qinhuangdao is situated. While many of China’s wealthy enjoy the coastline and beaches to the south of Qinhuangdao’s downtown, just a few kilometers to the northeast is the city’s coal port, which happens to be the largest of its kind in the world.
To gather the data we will use to conduct our research, our team split up into several smaller groups to visit various industrial firms. The in-person contact with industries in the city gave our team new and often unexpected perspectives on the city, adding complexity and nuance to our task of evaluating the city’s potential to implement industrial symbiosis and more sustainable urban management. Our findings uncovered contradictions, cases of both very good management as well as those lacking the most basic controls.
We saw clear cases of best practice. In the aluminum plant we visited, we found a team of passionate managers who had turned around their business following a streak of losses by boosting productivity while complying with rigorous environmental performance criteria. As a large facility, the factory is under close supervision by both the local environmental bureau as well as its international parent company. Over the past years, the company had completely phased out use of coal in favor of natural gas and even some solar. Among the measures taken were new energy conservation and resource reuse initiatives. They proudly showed us how these initiatives placed their factory above sister facilities around the world with respect to multiple KPIs. Despite their accomplishments, the factory team was forthcoming about the challenges they face and further needs for improvement. That level of openness was refreshing and it helped orient our team as to the specific kinds of interventions that can make a difference.
I was in a group that also got to see two factories that seemed to have fallen through the cracks, even amidst the strong environmental push in the city. Both facilities cited financial struggle and small scale as a reason for having to cut corners on compliance with pollution emissions standards. One of the factories only had seven employees and could no longer afford to maintain one of their automated machines, forcing them to revert back to using the manual strength of their workers to perform that function. Some groups conducting interviews were met with reluctance to divulge information, a stark contrast to the candor exhibited at many of our other meetings.
In all, I was very glad that our team was able to witness both ends of the spectrum with regards to environmental management. Those companies doing less showed how issues like scale, profitability and even a sense of institutional isolation might complicate an intervention like industrial symbiosis. Yet those companies implementing best practice showed us that with the right tools and management, improving both economic and environmental performance doesn’t have to be a losing battle.