The Changing Industrial Wastewater Market in China

Environmental protection in China has taken positive steps forward in the past few years after decades of rapid economic growth left the country with polluted water and air. One of these steps is the pursuit of solutions from environmental specialists outside of China to help address China’s challenges.

In June 2017, BQE Water was part of a delegation of Canadian industrial wastewater service providers that traveled to China on a mission organized by NRC-IRAP and Global Affairs Canada to develop partnerships with Chinese firms with the end goal of commercializing Canadian water technologies in China. During the mission which stopped in Wuhan, Shanghai, Beijing and Tianjin, interest for Canadian clean technologies was strong as demonstrated by the high attendance at Canadian firms’ presentations and the large number of B2B sessions that took place.

From the industry meetings, government briefings and B2B sessions, it was very obvious that significant change is happening in the Chinese market for industrial wastewater. Below are some of the more compelling insights gained from the mission.

Awareness of Treatment Life Cycle Costs
A common theme we heard repeatedly from Chinese companies was the importance of life cycle costs in the decision making process. Previously, decisions were made solely on the lowest capital cost with the higher upfront cost of new and innovative technologies acting as a price barrier for companies to adopt sustainable solutions and best practices in their operations. However, companies are coming to the realization that with mining and industrial projects spanning 20 years and more, operating costs are a substantial contributor to the overall cost for water treatment over the full life of the project.

Growing Concerns with Greening of the Cities
China’s five year plans are a series of social, economic and environmental development initiatives that contain the guidelines, strategies and targets to address the country’s challenges. Its most recent plan outlines the government’s commitment to address environmental conditions, which includes the clean-up of the country’s rivers. While metals and sulphate removal are going concerns, a new and fast growing issue we heard from companies is ammonia.

Increased Enforcement of Regulations
Chinese environmental groups may say there is a gap between legislation and enforcement but the companies we spoke with tell us the opposite, with all confirming that regulatory enforcement is on the rise. Specifically, companies found in non-compliance are given tight deadlines to rectify the situation or risk being subject to very substantial fines. Enforcement authorities have also been given greater powers to impose severe punishment to environmental violators and those who fail to report such violations. One steel making company we met with was under considerable pressure to remove heavy metals from their effluent and were urgently looking for a solution to meet compliance requirements.

We found the mission to be highly informative – it was very interesting to speak directly with companies and hear first-hand the wastewater challenges they faced, the steps they must and are taking to address them and how they assess water treatment options. Given the environmental protection measures facing the second largest economy in the world, it is promising that Chinese companies are pursuing sustainable water treatment solutions.

Written by
Alain Consigny, PEng and Frank Su, BASc