There’s a certain sense of poetic justice, maybe, to the fact that all of the manufacturing we’ve outsourced has somehow come back to bite us in the butt. Much of the pollution created in manufacturing Chinese products for the United States ends up blowing across the Pacific Ocean and invading the American West.
In the spring, when the dominant winds carrying over fumes from Chinese smokestacks are particularly strong, sulfate particles produced from China’s coal-fired power plants make up 12% to 24% of sulfate pollution in the western United States, according to recent research. Carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide produced in China also cause one full extra day of ozone smog over the city of Los Angeles a year, the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, says.
Researchers at the University of California-Irvine created a model that helped track Chinese exports back to the energy sources required to produce it. They then gauged the flow of airborne pollution overseas. Unlike plain-old carbon dioxide, which rapidly mixes into atmosphere above, dangerous aerosol contaminants like black carbon, carbon monoxide, sulfates, and nitrogen oxide linger, then drift away gently on the wind.
That pollution definitely translates to a health impact on American citizens, says the study’s co-author, University of California-Davis earth scientist Steve Davis. Still, he points out a small conundrum. “If you imagine we tried to make these things at home, rather than having them made for us in China, that manufacturing would happen on the East Coast. So air quality on the East Coast would suffer, but the West Coast would improve because we wouldn’t have this Chinese pollution blowing over.”
Homegrown manufacturing, however, would likely create a net environmental benefit. “In terms of global pollution, for every widget that is made in the U.S., there is less pollution than that widget made in China,” Davis said. “They have less controls and technologies in place at this point.”
Part of the challenge going forward will be feeding consumer desires for these widgets while not growing pollution just as quickly. To some small extent, that’s already happening, as China’s carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP has decreased in recent years.
But that’s no comprehensive solution, and with China and India’s growing middle classes, it’s probably only a matter of time before millions of people overseas start wanting Happy Meal toys made somewhere far away from residential areas, too.
“There are people pushing this idea that indefinite economic growth is not necessarily the answer,” Davis says. “That could happen, but I think it’s a tough road when American consumers want to go to Walmart and buy as cheap as possible goods and services.”