Every year, around 300 million tonnes of urban waste is dumped in China, most of it ending up in landfills close to the cities. But as the waste grows and space is running out, landfills are spilling over. Waste occupies an estimated three billion square meters of land, a figure that could be higher if it weren’t for the garbage mountains famously depicted by photographer Wang Jiuliang’s films and images.
Surpassing the United States as the world’s largest waste generator in 2004 and with annual solid waste predicted to reach a half billion tons by 2030, China has one of the world’s fastest rates in waste growth. This is not China’s problem alone, however: it’s a global phenomenon. Other regions in East Asia and parts of Eastern Europe and the Middle East are hard hit too.
As the world’s urban population expands, the waste generated by urban dwellers is increasing fast. The 2012 World Bank report, What a Waste: A Global Review of Solid Waste Management, predicted that municipal solid waste generated by cities around the world would reach 2.2 billion tonnes per year by the year 2025 – a wapping increase from the already high levels of 1.3 billion tonnes per year in 2012.
Yet it’s not just down to increasing urbanisation. More surprising is that waste is growing faster than the rate of urbanisation, suggesting people are tossing out a lot more than they used to. Furthermore, growth in waste generation rates will be even greater in lower income countries, where it is expected to double by 2025.
In China, according to Judy Li, a Princeton-in-Asia fellow with NRDC Beijing’s China Sustainable Cities Program, it is the “massive shifts to consumerist lifestyles by millions of Chinese” that have produced much greater quantities of waste. But she also points to an underdeveloped, over-stressed public waste management system struggling to keep up with the growth.
The problem is not just what to do with urban waste. Its very presence, either in regulated landfills, of which there are more than 1000 across China, or unregulated garbage mountains, has a worrying effect on the environment. There is a strong link between urban solid waste generation and greenhouse gas emissions, such as methane, which is known to have a significant environmental impact – including greater global warming potency than carbon dioxide. Whereas modern landfills are designed to reduce contamination, the garbage mountains are not. Soil and groundwater close by is easily contaminated and livestock feeding on the garbage is at risk of disease.
Weighing up the costs
Faced with this massive increase in waste, authorities are hurrying to introduce solutions for effectively managing waste with least impact on the environment. Waste management is one of the key issues facing modern society, affecting public health, the local and global environment and the economy. Sources in the World Bank say that improperly managed waste is likely to result in higher downstream costs than if it were managed properly in the first place.
But even with the knowledge that it makes more economical sense to proactively manage waste, the cost factor is still huge. World Bank figures point to a global cost of more than USD 370 billion in 2025, with increases most severe in countries including China, which can expect a four-fold cost escalation in that time. The sheer size of the issue in China also means that the country’s waste management practices have other global economic consequences. Of these is the global market for secondary materials – waste materials from landfills and other processes
used in recycling or reprocessing – which is heavily influenced by China’s domestic demand for these materials.
The waste workers
Waste in China is handled through both formal and informal systems for sorting and recycling. An estimated 1.3 million people work with official urban waste collection schemes, paid by local authorities and businesses to collect and transport waste.
Yet the number of people working within informal waste management, collecting materials from urban waste and selling it on, appears to be much higher. Even though it is not formally documented as much of it happens behind the scenes, recent estimates suggest that more than 5.5 million people are involved in this sector.
Their positive contribution should not be underestimated, according to Judy Li, as they are responsible for recycling up to 38 percent of municipal solid waste. Unfortunately, however, their contribution does not bridge the social gap largely caused by the waste collection system.
In addition to poor waste collection infrastructure, investment, and enforcement, the current waste system in China perpetuates social inequalities for rural-to-urban migrants who enter urban spaces with low socioeconomic statuses
Is waste incineration the answer?
Just as in other parts of the world, waste incineration is seen as one way of tackling China’s waste problems. In fact, with around 250 incinerators in China either in use or under construction, incineration is growing faster than the global average. Reports suggest that the intention was for 35 percent of urban household waste to be incinerated by the end of 2015.
Much of the thinking behind incineration is that it puts less pressure on landfill space and that ‘waste-to-energy’ incinerators can generate revenue for incineration facility owners. But that’s the last thing on many local residents’ minds.
The planned construction of an incineration plant in Hangzhou city in 2014 was met with angry demonstrations by local residents worried about the lack of regulation as well as environmental and health risks. On top of this scepticism, many see that incineration actually undermines the incentive to recycle, which is a crucial factor within the waste management equation.
And it may be hard to alleviate residents’ worries. In addition to the high costs and disincentives concerning other more economically and environmentally sound waste disposal options, there is the issue of potentially toxic emissions: China’s goal of 30 percent waste incineration – a huge increase from the one percent in 2005 – could at least double the global ambient levels of the highly toxic organic pollutant dioxin. Incineration doesn’t make everything disappear, either, and the residual ash requires responsible disposal.
Another major challenge is that China’s urban waste is an inefficient fuel for incineration, since it consists largely of organic waste, such as water and other materials of low calorific value. Meeting this challenge will require not just better systems for composting, recycling and improved landfills, but also a major change in the way urban residents approach consumption and waste disposal, according to Judy Li.
Looking for technology leaders
Despite the concerns, however, it is clear that waste incineration can make positive contributions. An important environmental benefit is the reduction of methane emissions from landfills. Paul Gilman of American Covanta Energy Corporation contends that for every ton of waste incinerated, a ton of greenhouse gas emissions is avoided.
Like many other major global challenges, the answer lies in better understanding of the issues – including public opinion – and encouraging technology advancement based on this understanding. It is a matter of developing effective, innovative technological solutions that solve a range of issues associated with waste management. An example is China’s intention to use anaerobic digesters to decompose organic waste and capture the methane as a fuel source.
As urbanisation and waste production continue their unstoppable course, players in industries where there is already specialist expertise have an opportunity to step up. Especially in production processes requiring huge energy inputs, such as cement, lime and steel, the opportunity is to extract the maximum energy possible from waste. Technology leaders in these industries need to show how waste incineration can be more than an economically viable solution – but also a socially acceptable one. If this challenge can be met, there might be more to gain than just profit.