Wasting Away: Where Will All of China’s Trash Go?

 Wasting Away: Where Will All of China’s Trash Go?
Dec 25, 2012 By Esta Chappell , eChinacities.com

On a daily basis, a typical urban dweller uses plastic packaging, plastic bags, plastic water bottles, paper cups, cardboard packaging, glass jars, polystyrene meat trays, food scraps, and just to top it off, some more plastic packaging. And this is just food related waste! Other everyday items such as batteries, obsolete cell phones, paper receipts, used toothpaste tubes, and all other manner of consumables are thrown into the trashcan. Where does it all go? It disappears off to the “land of far far away”, doesn’t it?  In fact, in China (like most countries), the majority of waste gets dumped into a landfill, while the rest goes into an incinerator. As China catches up to the developed world in terms of waste generation, questions are being asked about the “safe and sustainable” disposal of this rubbish. Do these landfills meet environmental standards? What happens when China runs out of land to fill?

China’s Waste Statistics

Trash or garbage, refuse or rubbish, municipal solid waste (MSW) generally refers to waste items discarded by the public (e.g. household waste), and doesn’t include industrial, hazardous, agricultural or medical waste products, or sewage sludge. China now produces a colossal 200 million tons of this waste, overtaking the USA to top the world in MSW generation. Sitting in an ivory tower, it’s easy to shake your head in dismay at this feat. But stop and think about population size for a moment—the per capita rate of waste generation in China is 0.8-1.0 kg/capita/day, much lower than that of developed countries (1.43-2.08 kg/capita/day). So perhaps the increase in China’s MSW generation is just a natural by-product of its recent economic growth and expanding urban population size. Research reveals, however, that there is no significant correlation between China’s GDP and waste generation for the period 1996-2006, suggesting instead that it’s the composition of its waste that has changed over time (Chen, Geng, & Fujjita, 2010).

The bulk (>50%) of China’s MSW is made up of organic matter—tons of left over noodles, chicken feet bones and disposable bamboo chopsticks. Whereas in developed countries such as the USA, degradable organic matter only makes up 25% and materials such as paper and plastic dominate the waste stream (~50%). But for China, this pattern is changing as recent economic growth and industrialization have resulted in an increase in the number of high-income urban residents. And these residents produce more petroleum-based waste items such as plastic than organic matter. In the larger cities, the proportion of paper and plastics is now more similar to that of Western cities, and even per capita waste rates are increasing in these high-density urban areas (e.g. Hong Kong – 2.25kg/capita/day).

Waste Collection and Disposal in China

1) Collection, separation and recycling
Given the vast land area, population size and housing ranging from hutongs to high-rises, there is not surprisingly a huge amount of variation in MSW management across China. Complicating the flow of rubbish from household to disposal/treatment site is the extremely large informal sector comprising scavengers and recyclable waste collectors. There are around two million people in China whose livelihoods depend on collecting and selling waste. The average Chinese household doesn’t separate recyclables (Beijing households only sorted and separated 15% of their rubbish (Xiao et al., 2007), so these collectors, by loading their tricycles to the gunnels with cardboard, cans, and plastic bottles, help divert this valuable waste from simply being landfilled. The problem with this system, however, lies in implementing and regulating any official recycling system, not to mention the health and hygiene issues associated with scavenging through rubbish for a meager living (the selling price for a used aluminum can is only 0.12 RMB).

2) Landfills
80-90% of the remaining MSW is then disposed of at one of the 324 “official” landfill sites across the country. If you do not frequent landfills (and in China it’s rather difficult to get access), then imagine an area the size of 20 football fields, the air thick with flies and the stench of rot, and in some cases farmed animals such as pigs or cattle, foraging for food scraps. The majority of these sites, and all of the unauthorized dumping sites, do not meet national Chinese standards, let alone international standards. It was not until 1991 that the first sanitary landfill to meet pollution standards (MEP, 1997) was built in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province; it is now a tourist attraction called Tianziling Landfill. Standards for landfills include requiring adequate lining systems, leachate collection and treatment systems, and some form of gas collection. If lacking these systems, landfills can have significant environmental costs.

3) Incinerators
Incineration involves the combustion of waste items into ash, flue gas and heat, the latter of which can also be converted to energy. However, due to the high moisture content of China’s waste (from organic matter), the heat produced during this process often can’t be utilized. Nevertheless, as of 2006 there were 70 “official” MSW incinerators operating in China, treating approximately 33,000 tons of waste per day. The use of incinerators has risen in the last ten years due to subsidies from the government (for the electricity generated), large investments from the private sector, and the space saving aspect when compared to landfills. Incineration is not without its environmental concerns though, and the toxic emissions and hazardous solid waste by-products need to be dealt with appropriately.

4) Composting
What happens to the rest of the rubbish that is not tipped down a big hole or thrown into a fire?  A small amount (2.9 million ton in 2009) goes to composting facilities around the country. However, in order for composting to be sustainable as a waste treatment option, there has to be suitable source separation of organic matter, infrastructure for transporting it to treatment facilities and finally, and most importantly, a market for the end product. Fortunately, the Chinese government is looking into the process of diverting organic waste from landfills.

China’s Waste Management Policies

As with many processes in China, there is no shortage of regulations, standards and policies governing MSW management. The main piece of legislation is the Law of the PRC on the Prevention and Control of Environmental Pollution by Solid Waste (MEP, 1996), which in 2004 was amended to include the key waste management principle of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). This makes the producer responsible for their product and its associated waste throughout the product’s life cycle, including after consumption and disposal. Another policy aimed at reducing waste in China was the ban on free plastic shopping bags in 2008, which has purportedly saved millions of tons of oil.

Despite the red tape, the trick seems to be conforming to these regulations; not always an easy task when you are dealing with chemical leaching and biogas emissions from 30-year-old landfills or incinerators. Complying with national standards in these cases requires money and infrastructure. Currently, the fee levies that go towards municipal waste management are so low that they scarcely cover the costs of waste treatment. For example, in some parts of Beijing the disposal levy is only 2-3 RMB per household per month and in Shanghai there is no waste disposal service fee (Zhang, Tan, & Gersberg, 2010).

There is some light at the end of the tunnel though. The government’s latest five-year plan contains a national plan outlining changes to MSW management. The main priority is the investment in infrastructure around waste management. This includes:

 •       Construction of new facilities such as incinerators, landfills and transfer systems
 •       Upgrading existing facilities, including implementing leachate collection and treatment at landfill sites, and methane extraction
 •       Constructing hazardous waste disposal facilities
 •       Improving transportation of waste by using closed container trucks and compressors
 •       Source separating organic waste for composting, conversion to biofuels or for methane extraction
 •       Undertaking environmental monitoring at waste disposal sites

To the Future

Although China now produces more MSW than any other country, they do not have their heads buried in the sand. It is clear that the type of waste being produced is changing, particularly in urban areas. What was once primarily organic waste is now a complex array of oil-based plastics and electronic waste all mixed in with left over noodles and bamboo chopsticks. However, policy changes such as banning plastic bags and increasing producer responsibility will help to relieve the burgeoning amount of waste going to landfills. With a growing environmental awareness in China, there is more pressure on waste treatment and disposal sites to clean up their act (so to speak), and ensure standards and regulations are complied with. So before buying those individually wrapped eggs, or upgrading the phone you purchased last year, think about that toxic, stinking hole in the ground that is the “land of far far away”.

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Keywords: China landfills China recycling China waste management


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Interesting article. Obviously the re-use of MSW by scavengers, being informal, is hard to control but very good for the environment. What of the other 3 methods of disposal is the most effective for China in the long term, with respect to environmental impact? And does country policy line up with this? Will it be a case of 'what's cheapest and get's the job done the quickest?' or will China take the road less traveled and deal with MSW properly before they reach the levels of other developed countries?

Dec 27, 2012 04:23 Report Abuse



Separating compostable waste from landfills and incinerators is the best approach long term. Any method that puts waste products to good use, whether it be extracting energy, reusing items or recycling them into new materials, is favoured over simply disposing of it all. Of course the general public's attitude as well as manufacturer's attitudes need to dramatically change before we will see any difference in the amount of waste going to landfill.

Dec 29, 2012 17:03 Report Abuse



Very interesting read! If only everyone was aware of these issues! Keep getting the messages out there Esta!

Dec 26, 2012 21:38 Report Abuse