Trash In China: Where Will It All Go?

Trash In China: Where Will It All Go?
Trash in China

Trash in China

China is one of the most rapidly growing countries on earth: in 2010 its population reached 1.3 billion people, and it will only continue to grow. As in other quickly developing countries, this population boom is putting quite a strain on China’s natural resources, and one of the biggest problems that will be confronting the country in the coming decades is garbage disposal. The Chinese threw away over 220 million tons of trash in 2009 and surpassed the U.S. to become the world’s largest waste producer. As the country continues to grow and become more affluent these numbers are expected to rise: China’s annual trash production is predicted to grow to 480 million tons by 2030. The question then, is where will all that trash go?

Current problems

In 2009 The World Bank undertook an extensive study of waste management in China and identified several issues China will need to consider moving forward.

Waste volume

Over the next few decades China is projected to produce more than double its current annual waste production, and its waste management infrastructure will need to grow as well. By 2030 China will be handling three times as much trash as the U.S. produces annually, which will require the development not only of safe, comprehensive disposal sites but also the integration of trash collection, sorting, and processing throughout the country.

Recycling
Recycle

Recycle

China is often the destination for recycled materials from all over the globe (for example, 80% of recycled electronics in the U.S. go to China for processing) and so has yet to develop a good system for reclaiming its own waste. Much like in the U.S. there is not a strong central recycling program, which means access to recycling centers varies among different regions and overall recycling rates are low. Composting rates are also very low, and the World Bank targets the handling of the 50% of China’s waste that is organic and biodegradable as an important component in any comprehensive waste plan.

Brownfields

The rapid industrial growth of China in the 1950s and 60s left behind a network of poorly regulated and maintained trash piles, often referred to as brownfields. These industrial dump sites are often little more than open fields that leach pollutants like heavy metals, VOCs, and petrochemicals into the soil, air, and water. One of the keys to reducing the environmental impact of China’s trash will be ensuring these brownfields are cleaned up and properly sealed.

Future Solutions

As with other countries (including the U.S.) the key to managing waste in China will be keeping trash out of the bin in the first place. The estimate of 480 million tons a year assumes China will maintain an average per capita trash production of 1.8 kg/day, which is still 20% less than the current U.S. per capita rate – if China approached the rate currently seen in the U.S., waste production will be even higher. Strategies for keeping the waste production rate down include measures that can be applied to waste programs worldwide. These include a focus on creating a culture of conservation through education and public awareness campaigns along with setting up financial incentives like tax breaks and deposit refunds to encourage reuse and keep trash volume low. China will also need to expand its infrastructure: it’s estimated they will need to develop 1,400 new landfills over the next 20 years as well as new industrial compost sites, incinerators, and recycling facilities.

All these changes aren’t just important for China – their waste disposal issues will have wide ranging implications for the rest of the world as well. Their use of imported waste already controls the market for many recycled materials, and changes in their waste management policy are likely to affect how other countries handle their own trash. More importantly perhaps is the effect pollution will have not only within China but also on the rest of the world. Water pollution is currently a serious concern for large parts of China, and industrial air pollution can easily travel across the globe – for example, it’s currently estimated that 50% of the mercury that falls on North American lakes comes from coal-burning power plants in China. We live in an interconnected world, which means ensuring the proper handling of waste worldwide is a concern for us all.

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