By the end of the last century, domestic garbage from China's cities went largely unprocessed to landfill sites. The first years of the 21st century saw the introduction of new garbage disposal methods, which are commonplace in developed countries. First came sorting to facilitate recycling in 2000 then a collection charge in 2002. However all is not well.
People are not yet sorting their trash with any degree of commitment and most garbage still finds its way to the landfill sites. The disposal charge hasn't had a smooth introduction either. In some places the fee charged for collection has been reduced several times.
There is a still long way to go to realize the goals of reducing the total volume of garbage for disposal, transforming old rubbish into useable resources and disposing of domestic trash without creating secondary pollution.
Hundreds of thousands of tons of garbage still cast a long shadow over some 600 Chinese cities.
Sorting Still Ineffective
In Liuheyuan Residential Community, located in the Shijingshan District of Beijing, the bins are clearly labeled kitchen waste, recyclable or other. Beside them piles of garbage lie unsorted, tied up in plastic bags.
"Is this the so-called garbage sorting? This is not the way to do it. By the way, why don't the dustbins have a food-switch installed?" said local resident He Yanping.
Sorting garbage before collection is believed to be an effective method to decrease the volume of garbage that needs to be dumped. There were pilot studies in eight cities including Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou in 2000. However, right from the start the new method has operated in name only.
In Beijing, by the end of 2002 sorting had been introduced to 277 residential quarters, office buildings and industrial districts. 200,000 households and 1 million people were covered. However only about 10 percent of the garbage in those areas is actually being sorted.
In east China's Shandong Province, the cities of Jinan, Qingdao, Zibo and Yantai were chosen for sorting trials there, but it was the same story with sorting accounting for only some 10 percent.
In these and other cities all over China it's still the norm to find mixed garbage being put out for collection in bags. What's more even if the garbage is sorted prior to collection it doesn't stay sorted. "It will become mixed up later in the processing cycle," revealed Feng Luning, deputy-director of the Municipal Parks and Public Sanitation Bureau of Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi Province.
And so the aims of reducing volume, tackling pollution and recycling valuable resources have largely been compromised.
Why hasn't garbage sorting been well received in China? Feng thinks the problem may be related to conditions in China. "How many families in China have enough space to have several garbage cans side by side?" he said.
"People don't really appreciate the value of sorting," said Dong Lei, general manager of the Qingdao Solid Waste Disposal Co. Ltd, "so a lack of awareness among our residents has led to problems in encouraging sorting into the discard or recycle categories we're trying to implement here."
Backward garbage disposal facilities also present an obstacle to the processing of sorted trash. In the Majialou Garbage Transit Station where all the domestic garbage from the Xuanwu District of Beijing passes through, sorting is rudimentary. A small proportion is diverted to be broken down as compost and put back into the soil, but most just goes to the landfill sites and this includes plastics and glass bottles that could have been recycled. The reality still falls far short of a proper system of sorting.
Charges Going Uncollected
The Yangguangcheng residential quarter has been recognized as a Beijing Residential Quarter with Excellent Property Management. Garbage sorting might well be considered exemplary here but inquiries have revealed that the property management staff didn't actually know what the garbage collection charges are.
Staff from the Urban Construction Administrative Committee for the Chaoyang District of Beijing sought to excuse the omission by pointing out that there are few residents in Yangguangcheng and no one has been put in charge of collecting the charges.
But, what is most puzzling is that the property management here is actually of a very high standard as is sorting for collection. Property prices in Yangguangcheng are high at over US$2,000 per square meter. Property management fees are running at six yuan (US$0.72) per square meter per month. So why should there be any difficulty in collecting a garbage charge of just three yuan (US$0.36) a month?
The charges were introduced to China's cities in June 2002 to fund the modernization of garbage disposal. So far the fee is being collected in just 123 cities, or about 19 percent of the total.
According to Lu Yingfang, an official from the Urban Construction Department at the Ministry of Construction, garbage charges have been slow to make an impact in China. So far only two provincial administrations, Guangdong and Shanxi have brought in legislation on the introduction of the charges. Many cities don't yet have a policy on the issue and where charges are levied they tend to be rather on the low side.
Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi Province, started on the road to garbage collection charges in 2001. There was a public hearing to consider the matter of the rate to be levied and this concluded with approval being gained. But up till now, the new measures haven't been put into practice due to the unresolved problem of how to collect the monies due.
Beijing has actually seen a sharp drop in the revenues collected. The figures for last year showed some 4 million yuan (about US$480,000) collected compared with 7 million yuan (about US$845,000) for the year before.
Who generates garbage and who pays for its disposal? It should be a straightforward matter. Referring to the difficulties of collecting the charges in Beijing, Liang Guangsheng, deputy director of the Beijing Municipal Administrative Committee for Urban Construction said, "the main obstacle to collecting the charges resides in the collection mechanism rather than in the scale of charges. In a survey 98 percent of respondents indicated their willingness to pay. The problem lies in how to collect the monies due."
Collection is multi-layered and administratively complex with residential community, district and municipal levels all involved. The costs of collecting the charges are significant and there should be consultation to explore the feasibility of working alongside some existing revenue collection mechanism," said Liang.
An official from the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau said that more publicity should be given to the issues to increase public awareness. If people could be better informed as to the benefits they would be more likely to participate wholeheartedly.
Garbage Keeps on Growing
"If the garbage generated by Beijingers in one year was piled up in one place, it could raise a great mound 40 meters high over an area of 500 mu (33.5 hectares)." This vivid imagery came from Xu Bo, director of the Installations Division of the Beijing Municipal Administrative Committee of Urban Construction.
As an unwelcome spin-off from economic development, Beijingers generated 3.21 million tons of domestic garbage in 2002 compared with 2.05 million tons in 1978. Every day the average Beijinger produces nearly 1 kg of garbage.
Growth in the amount of garbage generated outstrips even growth in GDP. Almost all landfill sites reach capacity and are taken out of service ahead of schedule. By Beijing's Olympic year 2008, the projections are for 12,000 tons of domestic garbage a day. With garbage disposal capacity currently running at just 8,800 tons per day, this is becoming a matter of concern.
Beijing is just one of many places around the country which has seen its garbage grow and grow. Each year now some 56 million tons of domestic garbage from the cities goes to dumps demanding increasingly more space.
Garbage disposal doesn't come cheap. Collection, transportation and disposal of 1 ton of garbage costs 150 to 170 yuan (US$18-20) in Beijing. Nationwide 20 billion yuan (US$2.4 billion) was invested in processing domestic garbage during the currency of the 9th Five-Year Plan (1996-2000).
Deputy director of the Research Office of the Environment and Resources Commission of the National People's Congress (NPC), He Jingping, said that only a small proportion of the garbage is currently composted down and returned to the land or incinerated for power generation. Most is buried rather than recycled as a useful resource.
The unsophisticated methods used in processing the garbage provide little opportunity to make any noticeable volume reduction. Incineration would be an obvious means of doing this but at present there is no incineration plant in the capital city of Beijing.
A responsible official from the Ministry of Construction reported that the national garbage disposal rate has reached 58.2 percent. Ye Rutang, deputy director of the Environment and Resources Commission and also former Vice Minister of Construction responded, "I just can't accept this figure as it overstates what is being achieved," and he pointed out, "existing measures for maintaining environmental sanitation involve relocating the garbage from urban to rural areas. The cities may be well groomed, but who is looking after the natural beauty of the countryside?"
Those concerned suggested not expecting too much too quickly as garbage sorting and charges had only recently been introduced to the Chinese people. However changing the production and consumption habits of a "throw-away society" should begin without delay and everyone should play their part.
Citing the example of the over-packaging of moon cakes getting worse every year, Ye Rutang said, "in line with international conventions, we should bring in legislation to control the situation by reducing the amount of garbage at source. In developed countries, enterprises that over-package their goods incur financial penalties. For instance this has led to the use of simpler packaging in Germany."
"In the past, families saved metal toothpaste tubes for recycling," said Wang Shi, a resident of the Dongcheng District of Beijing. He suggested that a garbage recycling station be set up in every residential quarter. Each household should have an account for the value of recyclable garbage handed in with the money being paid to them every month. "This approach would not only reduce the amount of garbage for dumping, but would also provide employment opportunities. Why not go ahead with it?"
(China.org.cn translated by Zhang Tingting, July 12, 2003)