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How to cope with the disposal of a mountain of trash is
becoming an increasingly urgent challenge


RUBBISH MOUNTAIN: Due to the lack of advanced garbage disposal techniques, a large amount of urban trash cannot be disposed of safely

With Chinese cities estimated to accumulated account for nearly one third of all the garbage produced in the world every year, disposing of this trash is becoming an urgent task for Chinese governments at all levels.

In the 1980s, China began a campaign to improve urban sanitary conditions and has been working since then toward this purpose. In February this year, the State Council, China’s cabinet, issued a document on strengthening environmental protection efforts, listing rubbish disposal as one of the eight major objectives of that program.

The amount of trash produced worldwide is increasing 8 percent on an annual basis, while the figure for China is over 10 percent. The world produces an estimated 490 million tons of rubbish each year, with China’s cities alone accounting for 150 million tons. Currently, as much as 7 billion tons of garbage produced by Chinese cities remain untreated.

Disposing of the huge amount of garbage produced every day has always been a headache. Government telephone hotlines get many environmental complaints from residents each year, with the majority related to trash.

The Central Government spends a lot of money to dispose of garbage each year, and every city has its own rubbish disposal center. But it appears that government efforts to clean up the environment cannot keep pace with the speed of China’s urbanization. This rapid urbanization has brought a population explosion in cities, more skyscrapers, rapid industrial and service-sector development--and a big increase in garbage.

Expanding disposal methods

PROTECTING OUR ENVIRONMENT: Citizens are encouraged to dispose of garbage properly

It was only in the 1980s that China began to think about urban garbage disposal. Prior to that, the rubbish was piled up in mounds in the open air.

According to the China Association of Environmental Protection Industry, less than 2 percent of China’s urban trash underwent decontamination treatment before 1990. That began to change in the 1990s, and by 1999 there were 698 waste treatment plants handling 63.4 percent of the trash. Of that total, however, only 200 facilities were designed to render waste environmentally harmless, accounting for 20.3 percent of the total disposed. Currently, there are more than 700 such “safe” disposal plants in Chinese cities, handling 52 percent of the urban trash.

Liang Guangsheng, an official with the Beijing Municipal Administration Commission, noted that China is seeking new ways to dispose of rubbish, through the recycling and reclamation of waste materials. He added, however, that the biggest issue is not the technical feasibility, but how to sort the huge amount of garbage.

The first step in dealing with garbage is to collect it. Although in 2002 the Central Government proposed a sorting system for residents to observe when disposing of trash, the compliance rate is only 16 percent. Most trash is disposed of in a random way.

China divides urban trash into four categories: recyclable materials such as glass, paper, rubber and plastic; organic garbage, including kitchen waste and biological materials; non-organic rubbish like tiles, ceramics and metals; and toxic waste such as discarded batteries, insecticide containers, medical waste and electronics, such as television sets, telephones and computers.

In China, there are three methods of collecting rubbish. The first is to place garbage cans in public places, such as side streets in residential areas, where the trash can be collected by cleaners. The second is to build special rubbish collection stations in every residential area to which residents can bring their garbage. The third is to put garbage chutes in buildings. Residents put their trash in the chutes, and cleaners remove it. This was the most common way of dealing with garbage until early 2003, when the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic broke out. Experts argued that chutes might lead to large-scale bacterial infections, and many cities banned them. Major cities, such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, in succession stipulated that newly constructed buildings should not contain rubbish chutes.

ELECTRICITY FROM TRASH: Power plants run by incinerating garbage are being built

The collected trash is then transported to transfer stations by special garbage trucks, which are tightly sealed. At the transfer stations, rubbish is classified by robot sorters into organic and non-organic, recyclables and non-recyclables. Large pieces are compressed. The trash is then hauled away by trucks.

Landfills remain an important way to dispose of the rubbish. Some of the garbage is buried in sealed facilities, where it is allowed to “ferment” through a chemical or biological reaction. Pipelines collect the gas produced by this process, which is then burned off. Some of the liquid produced by fermentation is purified as gray water for cleaning the streets, while some is further purified to meet national standards and then discharged directly into rivers.

Some garbage is sent to composting facilities, where it is processed and turned into plant food. Some is incinerated to produce electricity. The energy created by two tons of rubbish is equal to that of one ton of coal. Currently, over 140 such power plants are operating or under construction. One such plant, in Tianjin, has a daily capacity to treat 1,200 tons of domestic rubbish, producing about 120 million kwh of electricity every year, which is enough to supply a year’s power to 50,000 households, saving the equivalent of 48,000 tons of standard coal.

Incineration is developing at a slow pace in China, however, since it is expensive. About 700-800 million yuan is needed to build a furnace and related facilities that can handle 1,000 tons of garbage per day. In addition, since the toxic chemical dioxin may be emitted during incineration, many cities are reluctant to use this method, except for treating medical waste.

Environmental protection officials believe that landfills may be the best method of dealing with China’s mountain of trash, given national conditions. According to the Environmental Protection Association, landfills account for 70 percent of trash disposal, composting facilities for 20 percent, incineration for 5 percent, and other methods, including stacking in the open air and recycling, for 5 percent.

Market role

The Ministry of Construction has announced goals for the improvement of urban and rural environmental and sanitary systems, with one of them being to detach garbage disposal plants from government control.

The government has issued a set of policies based on the market-oriented operation, standardization and opening up of the sector. It has begun to enforce a system which requires payment for trash removal, and allows the entry of private and foreign capital in the rubbish disposal sector as well as the operation of public sanitary facilities.

Up to this point, each city established its own trash collection, transportation and disposal enterprises, which are controlled and managed by the government. Thus, while the government has sped up efforts to “commercialize” garbage disposal, the fact that it is the sole manager and operator of these facilities hampers that effort.

“As far as the whole nation is concerned, non-state-owned businesses only account for 2 percent of the total waste disposed,” said Du Lin, researcher at the Environmental Protection Association.

Many cities are now actively changing this mode, implementing a system featuring supervision from environmental protection authorities, management by sanitation agencies and operation by garbage disposal companies.

It has been reported that in the last five years, Guangzhou has launched four large garbage disposal programs worth 2.4 billion yuan, including 1.3 billion yuan of non-state investment.

On February 10 this year, France’s Suez Group, which provides energy and environmental services, announced that it would locate its Asia-Pacific headquarters in Shanghai and double its investment in China in the next two years. The company said it believes environment-related businesses in China, including water management and garbage disposal, will develop into a strong potential market.

The Suez Group signed a 50-year contract with the Shanghai Industrial Park to invest in, design and manage its water, sewage treatment and other garbage disposal facilities. The two sides have also contracted to jointly build an incinerator to handle the park’s industrial waste.

Apart from Shanghai, the French company also lists Beijing, Qingdao and Chongqing as major investment destinations.

According to Du, the Chinese Govern-ment spends over 30 billion yuan on garbage disposal each year, which indicates that the industry represents a huge potential market.

Difficulties ahead

Still, trash disposal in China has not been fully industrialized and experts see many difficulties ahead. According to the Environmental Protection Association, three problems need to be resolved.

First, trash must be sorted properly. Since 2002, China has begun to encourage its citizens to sort their trash before throwing it away and taken measures to support that campaign, but the results were not satisfying.

“For one thing, our citizens do not pay much attention to the environment. For another, we do not have adequate rubbish classification and transportation facilities. These contribute to the rubbish disposal problems,” Du explained.

Second, China is still at an early stage in terms of rubbish collection, transportation and disposal techniques. Except in economically developed cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen in Guangdong Province, most of the sanitation workers do not have any protective equipment when dealing with garbage, and toxic gases emitted in the process of handling trash can harm the workers’ health.

The third problem is collecting rubbish disposal fees. In 2002, the Chinese Government formulated a policy requiring companies and individuals to pay for daily trash disposal. For individuals, the fee is 0.3 percent of the total family income, while a fee of 3,000 yuan per ton is charged for medical waste and 1,000 yuan per ton for industrial waste.

But the regulation fails to be effectively implemented due to the lack of an enforcement mechanism. Some enterprises refuse to pay the fee. Statistics from the Beijing Municipal Administration Commission show that only 40 percent of dues were collected in Beijing in 2005.

Another big problem is the disposal of electronic junks. China does not have the facilities and techniques to handle such trash as discarded batteries and computers in an environmentally friendly manner. Landfills and incineration are only ways to dispose of this kind of trash, despite their recognized uselessness to prevent probable pollution.

“The country has already paid attention to this problem and we are thinking of better ways to deal with rubbish. With policy incentives, the government is encouraging scientific institutions to upgrade rubbish disposal techniques,” said Liang of the Beijing Municipal Administration Commission.