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Making use of waste
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By Hou Ruili

In Ganbai residential courtyard in Beijing's Dongcheng District, four dustbins bearing distinctive labels are lined up side by side: "kitchen leftovers," "recyclable rubbish," "batteries" and "other waste." More than half of the capital's residential communities now sort rubbish in this way.

As the Chinese economy grows, garbage disposal becomes an ever more pressing environmental issue. Though the government has invested huge amount of capital in building new garbage disposal plants, the treatment of refuse still can't keep up with the amount of waste being generated. As a result, the Chinese people have been compelled to seek new garbage treatment methods.

The sorting of waste allows recycled rubbish to be used as raw material in renewable resource processing plants. Non-recyclable waste is sent to garbage disposal plants, where advanced technology is used to treat it and produce energy. By these means, China is beginning to tackle its immense garbage disposal problem.

Classified Garbage Collection

Classified garbage bins in Beijing. [Xinhua]

Classified garbage bins in Beijing. [Xinhua] 

Mrs Zhang Mei lives in Beijing's Ganbai residential community. In the corner of her kitchen sits a half-meter-high plastic bin for kitchen leftovers. A large plastic bag hangs on the wall to collect recyclable waste, including paper, plastic, rubber, metal and glass objects. In another corner sits a dustbin for non-recyclable waste such as cigarette butts and dust. Sorting rubbish may seem like a complicated process, but the continued efforts of community workers over the past two years have seen residents slowly falling into the habit. Educational efforts have included handing out leaflets providing guidance on rubbish classification and organizing visits to garbage disposal plants.

Not long ago, Zhang Mei joined one of the excursions organized by her neighborhood committee to several waste processing operations. She kept note of what one of the technicians said: 700 kg of recyclable raw material can be extracted from 1 ton of plastic soft drink bottles; 900 kg of iron can be extracted from 1 ton of waste iron; and 850 kg of recycled paper can be made from one ton of waste paper. This represents a significant reduction in air and water pollution, as well as a saving of resources.

Now in her late 30s, Zhang Mei recalls that there was no refuse treatment in Beijing during her youth. At that time she lived in a one-story house where all rubbish was placed in a basin. Waste then mainly comprised coal ashes, vegetable leaves and dust. Basins were emptied onto open ground each day shortly before dusk, when a man with a dust-cart would come around and collect the refuse. As more and more high-rises were constructed in China's cities, rubbish chutes were installed in stairwells, so residents no longer had to troop downstairs to dump their garbage. This was convenient, but the practice saw unsorted waste pile up outside apartment blocks in smelly, unsanitary mounds.

With the issue of garbage disposal standards, some refuse treatment plants began to emerge in Chinese cities in the late 1980s. However, before 1990, less than 2 percent of the nation's garbage was treated in any way. The following decade saw 660 refuse treatment plants built across China, with a daily handling capacity of 210,000 tons. In the last ten years, with advanced technology developed domestically and introduced from abroad, more integrated garbage plants have appeared that can bury, burn and treat rubbish. Increasingly Chinese people are not satisfied with garbage simply being disposed of, and are demanding better recycling facilities. In 2003 all garbage chutes in Beijing apartment buildings were sealed, and large bins for different types of garbage were introduced.

Classified garbage collection has now been implemented in 52 percent of Beijing's residential communities, but the national rate is still lower than 10 percent. According to statistics, recycled waste could save RMB 25 billion every year if it were properly collected and reused.

Processing plants have also struggled to keep up with ever increasing demand. Although the daily handling capacity of Chinese plants increased by 46,800 tons from 2000 to 2005, the percentage of total garbage treated actually declined from 61 percent to 54 percent. This reflects the larger amounts of rubbish being generated by China's increasingly consumer-driven society.

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