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How to make a clean sweep of waste handling
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The Beijing municipal government launched a campaign last week for better disposal of the 18,410 tons of domestic refuse the city generates every day.

Measures to be taken include building more environmentally friendly disposal facilities, improving garbage incineration technologies and enforcing household waste separation and recycling.

With the rapid economic development of the past few decades and the resultant change in people's lifestyle, garbage generation in China's cities has multiplied. The amount of domestic waste produced by a big city like Beijing has reached an alarming 6.72 million tons a year.

Such a mammoth volume of garbage is an acute problem for administrators of cities. Take Beijing, the country's capital, for example. The city will run out of space for landfills in just four years. Like other Chinese cities, Beijing buries most of the garbage it generates and incinerates only about 10 percent of the waste.

Some experts have suggested increasing the percentage of incineration. But building incinerators requires substantial investment, and people living near the existing ones have been complaining that less-effective emission control in the plants has caused intolerable air pollution.

Last week, the municipal authorities promised to improve the facilities to make gas emission "reach the standards adopted in the developed world such as the European Union".

Controlling pollution is the most daunting task for the authorities no matter whether they bury or burn the garbage. A more effective way is to address the problem "from the source", that is, sorting garbage by types to screen out hazardous elements before they are carried to disposal sites.

The Beijing government apparently has realized the importance of sorting and recycling garbage, for it has designated the last Saturday of every month as a "recyclable resources collecting day". "Professional groups" will go to residential communities when to collect reusable waste.

The campaign, however, is not new. Many years ago, the government installed differently marked garbage bins for different types of waste in all neighborhoods of the city. But the result was not up to expectation. Most people simply ignored the signs; only a few dumped their domestic refuse in different bins.

The ultimate problem lies with people's habit. But changing a habit that people have had for thousands of years is not as easy a job as pasting some signs on garbage bins. Much greater effort should be made to educate the public on the importance and necessity of separating and recycling domestic waste.

Increasing public awareness by popularizing the garbage recycling policy is certainly necessary. But that alone won't be enough. More concrete measures should be taken to make sure that people develop a good habit in handling garbage.

For instance, neighborhood committees - the grassroots units of the government - can appoint one of their members as full-time watchman to monitor the dumping of garbage. Residents who follow the dumping rules can be awarded and those who don't, fined.

Some people may argue this method is difficult to put into practice. They would do so because they think the idea is anti-convention. My argument: Because it's a matter of convention we should adopt some unconventional methods to break it. I believe that with persistence and proper measures of award and punishment the habit can be reshaped.

E-mail: liushinan@chinadaily.com.cn

(China Daily July 29, 2009)

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