TAKING OUT THE GARBAGE
How to cope with the
disposal of a mountain of trash is
becoming an increasingly urgent challenge
By LAN XINZHEN
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
ENVIRONMENT: Citizens are encouraged to dispose of
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
“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.