Trash Planet: China

The Trash Planet series highlights various countries around the world and how they handle their waste.

In 2004, the urban areas of China generated approximately 209 million tons of municipal solid waste, catapulting the nation past the U.S. as the largest generator of waste in the world.

Since then, that figure has increased at an accelerated rate. Currently, China is estimated to produce more than 220 million tons of municipal waste annually, and due to the country’s rapid population growth and waste management structures, the amount is projected to reach a shocking 533 million tons by the year 2030, according to the World Bank.

As the figures continue to rise, the question of what to do with all this trash becomes more and more important. According to research done by the China Environment Forum in conjunction with Western Kentucky University, the majority of China’s urban landfills are expected to reach capacity by 2020, meaning an additional 1,400 will need to be established. Projections like this are causing a panic among Chinese officials.


With more than one billion people, China is the most populated country in the world, making waste management imperative to preserving China’s precious space. Photo:

In the course of the next several decades, municipal authorities will not be able to stop the waste stream from growing. However, experts say if China responds relatively quickly, and with the appropriate actions, the rate at which it grows could be dramatically reduced.

Residential Waste Generation

There are three main factors driving China’s rapid waste production:

  • Urbanization
  • Population growth
  • Increasing affluence

Because of increased economic activity, which includes higher consumption patterns and generally higher incomes, urban residents in China produce two to three times more waste than citizens living in rural areas. Therefore, as cities expand and the country becomes more urbanized, the amount of trash citizens will produce grows too.

In wealthier residential areas, the bulk of waste generated comes from paper (30 percent), organic materials (26 to 27 percent), plastic (18 percent), glass (15 percent) and metal (5 percent). Little to no waste from ash and dirt is generated in these areas, unlike the high volume produced in the lower-income areas, according to the World Bank.

In impoverished, single-story residential areas, the bulk of waste generated comes from organic materials (nearly 50 percent) and ash and dirt (40 percent). Glass (2 percent) and paper and plastic (5 percent each) account for very little of the waste stream. Unlike in the higher-income neighborhoods, little to no metal waste is generated in these lower-income areas.

Le Yang is a 24-year-old graduate student from Chaozhou and Guangzhou in China’s Guangdong Province. Yang says trash is a big problem in his country’s cities.

“I do see trash on the streets,” he says. “They hire cleaning people to get rid of the trash. In some business centers or outdoor shopping plazas, there are cleaning workers in the daytime or the cleaning workers get up early every day, like 4 a.m., to sweep the streets. In some big roads, they use cleaning trucks.”

Dependence on Coal

Currently, many areas of China still use coal to heat homes and to generate electricity. The ash created in these processes has been a major problem, not only for China, but for other nations as well. The World Bank estimates that as much as 50 percent of the mercury falling on North American lakes is from Chinese power plants.

According to the World Bank, about 27.6 million tons of coal ash enter China’s urban waste stream annually. The material is very difficult to dispose of, as it contains heavy metals and is corrosive. Its composition reduces the lifespan and efficiency of incinerators, collection vehicles and waste processing facilities, as well as makes it unsuitable for composting.

The World Bank estimates, however, that by the year 2030, the vast majority of urban households will have made the switch to more modern gas heating and electricity, reducing the amount of coal ash in the waste stream.

Waste Collection and Recycling

By and large, people do not sort their trash at home; recyclables and regular waste are disposed of in the same bins. Also, levels of waste collection services vary across the country. In some areas, waste is collected up to three times per day, but in others, there is no regular collection at all. Overall, collection efficiency is more present in the east side of China than in the west.

“The trash collectors come around to take the trash away,” says Yang. “What the citizens need to do is to place the trash bag at a specific place close to [their] residence building. In the public areas, there are sort-out trash cans, but people don’t always realize it. They still throw all the trash into whatever trash cans.”

“At the college areas, however,” Yang continues, “the situation is much better than other areas, and the streets are very clean because the students take it much more serious than other people do.”

A possible problem with China’s current recycling system could be that the country accepts too many low-cost, secondary materials, such as scraps, from other countries. For example, in 2002, the U.S. exported an estimated $1.2 billion worth of secondary materials to China, according to the World Bank.

Some nations that usually have stricter waste management regulations and therefore higher fees export their waste materials to China in order to save their own landfill space and avoid paying the more expensive disposal costs. This business practice may provide China with cheap materials, but it prevents them from further developing systems in place that would better utilize the country’s own secondary materials.

According the World Bank, paper production in China continues to grow significantly each year and accounts for a majority of the waste in affluent residential areas. As municipal authorities improve their recycling programs, experts agree that paper will need to become a major focal point, as producing the paper from reclaimed materials would be less expensive and better for the environment.

In fact, China’s pulp and paper production from raw materials account for roughly 47 percent of the country’s total chemical oxygen demand (COD) discharges — organic pollutants found in surface water, for example, lakes and rivers. Also, if China were able to achieve a 50 percent recycling rate for all its paper waste by 2030, it would save more than 41 million tons from potentially ending up in landfills, according to the World Bank.

So far China has not been very successful at composting its biodegradable waste, due to the fact waste is not separated at the source and, therefore, much of the organic material has been mixed with non-biodegradable material, negatively affecting the final compost product.

However experts say if China were to improve its composting methods, there would be a number of advantageous effects, including the ability to avoid excessive formation of methane gases (greenhouse gases), reduce carbon emissions and reduce erosion.

Additionally, the compost could be marketed to farmers who can afford it as a soil conditioner for their crops. Good-quality compost can improve moisture retention, seed germination, and growth and disease suppression among plants.


Many citizens collect recyclables for resale in China. Photo:

Waste Pickers

China’s waste management system has two components: formal and informal. Interestingly enough, there are more individuals who work in the informal sector of waste services than in the formal.

Urban waste collectors are paid by local governments to mainly collect and transport residential waste, but in some cities, these individuals may also sell the recycled materials to supply the municipality with an additional revenue stream.

The informal sector is comprised of low-income individuals, sometimes even children, called waste pickers, who collect recyclable materials to sell to recycling facilities.

Banned from collection bins because they interfere with collection services, these individuals frequently sort through waste in hazardous landfills and other locations.

Waste pickers may be considered a nuisance to landfill and collection site managers, but the World Bank estimates that they reclaim as much as 20 percent of the country’s waste. Also, waste picking does provide informal employment for some.

Industrial Waste Generation

In 2002, Chinese industries were responsible for generating more than 1 billion tons of waste – that’s more than five times the amount of the municipal solid waste that was generated that year. Industrial waste is not included in China’s municipal solid waste stream, however, because corporations are required to treat and dispose of their waste independently.

In some cities, such as Hong Kong, construction and demolition wastes make up the largest percentage of the waste stream. These materials are often used to fill in low-lying areas, however, there is the possible danger of the demolition waste polluting the groundwater.

As China’s population continues to grow rapidly, the nation’s water sources will become more and more valuable, therefore, the country could benefit from creating landfills capable of holding demolition wastes without creating leachate.

Drying Beds

In China, sludge is a common hazardous byproduct of industries, as well as waste treatment facilities. This sludge is frequently treated in “drying beds,” ideally located far from water sources, according to “Wastewater Sludge Processing.”

In drying beds, the sludge is poured over a bed of gravel or sand. The moisture is then allowed to evaporate and be absorbed into the ground. This process is called “dewatering,” and once it’s complete, the sludge will have hardened and can then be treated as a solid.

Drying beds have appealed to China’s municipal authorities because the operating costs are relatively low, they consume very little energy, require few chemicals and can be used for up to 10 years before the harmful residues need to be removed.

However, there are disadvantages to the use of drying beds. They require significant land space and can be highly odorous, making it difficult to place them near a city. And in more rural areas, much of the ground is not very absorbent, having already been saturated with manure from widespread livestock farming.

Disposal alternatives for sludge include incineration, but the process is very expensive. And dumping sludge into landfills is dangerous, as most landfills are not well equipped to prevent the chemicals from leaching into groundwater.

As the amount of sludge created from industrial waste increases, experts say China will have to establish more landfills that are able to receive dewatered sludge, taking into consideration location, design and operation, so that there is minimal risk of contaminating water sources.


A massive landfill in Hong Kong is extended in order to accomodate more waste. Photo:

A massive landfill in Hong Kong is extended in order to accommodate more waste. Photo:

Some Chinese cities, such as Shanghai, have made efforts to establish safer landfills, but in most cities the landfills are more or less dumps, where the discarded waste’s environmental impact is poorly regulated.

Problems with landfills include:

  • Interference from waste pickers
  • Inadequate sloping of the land
  • Inadequate collection and treatment of leachate
  • Little to no compaction or waste covering
  • Little to no collection of landfill gases

However, some municipalities, such as Tianjin, are trying to raise those standards by implementing more up-to-date construction and technology.

In 2007, Tianjin took steps toward establishing the Shuangkou Landfill Gas Project, which will recover landfill gases such as methane and carbon dioxide and convert them into electricity, according to the World Bank Carbon Finance Unit.

As of the end of 2008, Tianjin’s gas project was still in its infant stages of development, but with continued improvements, the potential for reducing emissions, as well as generating power, is huge.

In other cities, the landfills are more or less dumps, where the discarded waste’s environmental impact is poorly regulated. Some sites, called “brownfields,” are lands filled with contaminants from poor disposal practices and chemical spills.

These polluted fields have an ill effect on public health and the environment, as they degrade air quality and water sources. The World Bank reports that in 2005 there were as many as 5,000 brownfields across China.

Experts say the matter of cleaning up brownfields is an urgent one if China is to protect its groundwater in this time of extreme population growth.

Already the water is not very clean or safe to drink. “No one drinks water from the tap [in China] — no one,” says Katrina Josephson, a 24-year-old American from Rhode Island who studied Mandarin for two months in Hangzhou.

Yang explains further, saying, “You can never ever drink tap water directly in China. People get the tap water and boil water in pots, then drink hot water, or wait until it cool down.” He also adds, “All the rivers in cities are polluted, black water, dirty and stinky.”

International Protocol

In 1997, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change introduced the Kyoto Protocol, an environmental treaty holding participating countries accountable for stabilizing their production of major greenhouse gases, including methane and carbon dioxide.

Because it’s considered a developing country, China was never formally bound to comply with the terms set forth in the Kyoto Protocol. In fact, former U.S. President George Bush cited the fact that the treaty didn’t hold China fully responsible for stabilizing its emissions as one of the reasons why the U.S. did not sign the Kyoto Protocol.

In September, however, Shanghai will host the China Solid Waste Management Summit 2009, which will bring together more than 200 waste management professionals from all over the world in order to discuss how to improve China’s current systems and practices.

And just three months later, the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP15) will take place in Copenhagen, Denmark, where participating nations hope to establish a treaty that will adequately replace the Kyoto Protocol, which is set to expire in 2012.

Future Progress

According to the World Bank, China’s current waste management data is largely insufficient, making it difficult to create accurate all-inclusive reports, or to even set long-term goals for waste reduction per capita, as well as for the country as a whole.

But experts agree that a few things are certain, regardless of the numbers: If China is to slow its rate of waste generation, it will have to take into consideration a number of factors, including:

  • Brownfield cleanup
  • Effective composting
  • Waste segregation at the source
  • Widespread collection services
  • Safer landfills that can be used for longer periods of time

Feature image courtesy of Mike Behnken

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  1. Interesting article. But was surprised to see waste pickers mentioned as interference and listed as a problem in landfills.
    In fact waste pickers are the only people who are involved in collecting smallest of recyclable that even any segregation machine fails to do.
    They are the pillars of robust recycling industry in India. It is estimated that one waste picker produces 25 jobs in the recycling chain
    Having said that we do feel that working in dump is not an appropriate place for anyone; all recyclables should be recovered before it reaches the dump. So, source segregation and decentralized waste processing is only the option.


  2. It is an interesting article. Waste and pollution are gravely harming China’s air, water, land, and people. How long will it be before the Chinese government plan to enforce an effective law to save and protect its environment? Isn’t already too late in some cases to reverse the process?

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