The tyranny of trash

Authorities flag plan to help cities escape a ‘garbage siege’


Drowning in rubbish: the flipside of China’s consumer revolution

Online shopping, meal delivery services and takeaway drinks.

As consumer trends change in China, so does the amount of garbage that the country produces.

With rubbish dumps starting to encircle many of the nation’s major cities, the government is warning that people will need to pay for each kilogramme of waste they produce.

“According to the principle of the polluter pays… the country will fully establish a domestic garbage disposal fee system by the end of 2020,” a policy paper from the National Development and Reform Commission said earlier this month.

China currently produces about 400 million tonnes of domestic rubbish a year. Output is growing at rate of 3% overall and 8% from cities. The authorities lack the resources to absorb the outflows and much of the garbage falls outside formal processing, ending up untreated in landfills.

That has led the media to talk about the so-called “garbage siege” in which cities are surrounded by mounds of rotting rubbish.

Other rubbish ends up being illegally dumped, often in rivers or on farmland. Some 500 square kilometres of arable land is now covered in trash, according to the scientific journal Technology and Enterprise. That’s no small amount when you consider the government’s keenness to preserve every inch of farmable terrain.

Larger cities tend to claim rubbish treatment rates of over 95% but waste disposal is lacking in rural areas, where about half of waste gets treated, according to government statistics.

The latest move to make people pay for their trash comes as part of a wider drive to clean up the environment under President Xi Jinping.

Since beginning his second term as leader of the Communist Party in October last year, Xi has made several key speeches urging the creation of an “ecological civilisation”.

China’s leaders have the longstanding goal of building a “moderately prosperous society” by 2020 and the following year sees the centenary of the Party’s founding – an anniversary when the government will want to celebrate achievements such as a strong economy and a cleaner environment.

“China has entered the critical period of providing more high-quality ecological products to meet the people’s growing needs for a beautiful environment,” the People’s Daily said in response to the NDRC plan.

Chinese citizens already pay for trash collection – a minimal, flat-rate fee of a few yuan per month as part of their community service payment. But generally speaking there is no reward for generating less waste or much incentive to recycle. Indeed, in many cases separated garbage is tipped into collection vehicles when it is picked up, only to be sorted again once it arrives at refuse locations.

Dirty or mixed materials is one of the major reasons that local recycling companies wanted to import so much “clean” trash from overseas until the government introduced a ban on much of the trade earlier this year (see WiC412).

In fact, China has been the world’s largest importer of scrap – such as plastic – since 1992, as part of efforts to make money from rubbish through recycling. But attitudes have changed, especially about single-use plastic items such as rubbish bags, bubble wrap, bottles and small packages, that are low in quality and of lesser value when recycled

Back at home the southern metropolis of Shenzhen was the first city to impose a mandatory recycling programme in April for larger items such as discarded furniture and home appliances. Shanghai is also encouraging people to recycle more of their refuse by allowing them to earn social credit points for separating their garbage.

The authorities have set targets for 35% of household waste to be recycled by 2020, which is roughly the same amount that is incinerated today. Further into the future, they aim to get rid of urban landfills completely.

Yet to achieve this goal they will have to find ways of reducing the huge volumes of plastic packaging that their own population is generating. The positive side to China’s consumer revolution is a more balanced economy. The negative aspect – and something that gets less attention in the international media – is the world-beating amounts of waste that comes with each new purchase.

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