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Sorting the rubbish in Beijing

The Chinese capital’s strategy for dealing with waste is under scrutiny, from residents and experts alike. Huo Weiya investigated the options.

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After the 2008 Olympic Games, Beijing’s strategy for dealing with waste disposal overtook transport and air quality to become the environmental issue attracting the most media attention and public engagement in the Chinese capital.

In early August, a group of 30 journalists and concerned citizens, organised by the Sohu environment channel, chinadialogue and others, visited the landfill sites at Asuwei and Gao’antun to see how Beijing’s waste is being dealt with.

Opened in 1994, Asuwei was Beijing’s first landfill site. Today it receives 3,800 tonnes of waste every day, more than double its designed capacity of 1,800 tonnes. Construction of an incineration plant is due to start at the end of the year. Since measures to prevent seepage of water from the site have been ineffective, leachate from the site contaminates the groundwater. Media reports have drawn a possible link between this and high illness rates in surrounding residential areas.

In the 1980s, locals at Gao’antun used the site as a dump. In 1995 it became an official landfill site. An incinerator, constructed before the Olympics last year, is still being tested. On August 30, 2008, hundreds of angry residents took to the streets holding placards and wearing masks to protest the stench from the site. The government quickly dealt with the problem of the smell: they covered the site with plastic membrane, sprayed chemical deodorisers and redirected some of the waste to other sites at Asuwei and Beishenshu to reduce the load on the plant.

However, measures such as using plastic membrane – which is easily damaged – and shifting processing to other areas do not solve the root causes of the problem. Although the Asuwei and Beishenshu sites may be further from residential areas, the foul odours still exist, especially at the overloaded Asuwei site. One of the organisers of the Gao’antun protests, Zhao Lei, remains unhappy with the government’s handling of the problem and continues to make representations.

On June 5, 2007, local residents – tormented by the smell from the overloaded Liulitun landfill site in Haidian – protested outside the State Environmental Protection Administration (now the Ministry of Environmental Protection). In July 2009, the Haidian authorities announced that the landfill would close four years early, with an incinerator planned at the same location. But the residents oppose this move, due to the threat of carcinogenic dioxins. Today the fate of the site remains undecided.

According to the Beijing Municipal Commission of City Administration, the capital produced an average of 18,400 tonnes of rubbish every day in 2008, a figure that is increasing by 8% a year. It is estimated this will increase to 25,000 tonnes per day in 2012 and 30,000 tons by 2015, by which point all of Beijing’s landfill sites will be full.

Faced with increasing amounts of rubbish, the Beijing government started trying to sort waste in 1996; Global Village, an NGO, ran sorting trials in communities in the capital. But 10 years later, rubbish is still being buried unsorted.

Rubbish bins in Beijing’s public areas are marked with “recyclable” or “non-recyclable”, but everyone knows that it all ends up buried in the same place. The equipment and systems needed for separate transportation and processing of rubbish are not in place. Sorting never caught on.

“We are rapidly adding new facilities,” Wei Panming, deputy director of the facilities department at Beijing Municipal Commission of City Administration, recently explained, “but the amount of waste is increasing quickly, too – so there is pressure. We need to use rubbish sorting at source and recycling to reduce quantities by 1% or 2% per year, with zero growth by 2015.” This marks a new round of government promotion of rubbish sorting, but there has not yet been any progress on implementation.

Some NGOs would like to emulate the Japanese example: careful sorting of waste into specific categories as the ultimate goal, with rough sorting to start with. But Zhang Jingzhi, general manager at waste disposal firm Hejia Resources, says there is no need for excessive sorting. “Separating out organic waste such as leftover food is excellent, but everything else can be sorted by machinery at the plant. Why spend so much sorting it out at source?” He also thinks the definitions of “recyclable” and “non-recyclable” are problematic. Most people would not think of a rotten apple as recyclable, he says, “but for me, that rotten apple can be reused. It will make great fertiliser.”

Despite a decade of calls for even simple waste-sorting, China still lacks a clear and workable system. The country’s 600 cities produce almost 150 million tonnes of waste every year; most of these cities have trouble dealing with it.

Many cities, including Beijing, are looking to incinerators as a quick way to reduce landfill. This may be the most controversial method of dealing with rubbish, in Beijing and elsewhere. However, Wei says that there is no technical reason not to build incineration plants in Beijing at European Union standards, and that heavy metal pollution is accumulative: “you do not get poisoned if you just eat a little bit.” NGOs, local residents and some experts do not agree. Incineration, they point out, has often been abandoned overseas. If the make-up of the rubbish is so varied, it may not be suitable for incineration. Can suitable sites be chosen – and will the plants run correctly?

According to the Beijing city government, their aim is to increase waste disposal capacity, adjust the make-up of that capacity and promote reduction of the overall quantity of waste. Wei explains that this adjustment means shifting from a 2:3:5 ratio of incineration, biological processing and landfill in 2012, with no burial of unprocessed urban waste, to a 4:3:3 ratio by 2015.

Says Wei: “Not all rubbish burns. Different types of rubbish will be handled differently, as long as pollution and costs are controlled – and the final results are good.” But the government, businesses and the public have different ideas about what represents a good result, and the public have little faith in expert opinions. The debate over incineration will test the wisdom of all parties.

In any case, incineration in China is on the rise. “It is needed – the country does need to increase the percentage of waste that is incinerated. Over the next year or two we will be building several large waste-to-energy generators,” says Zhang. “The plants either operate under a build-operate-transfer model, with the government subsidising rubbish processing, or a profit model, with subsidy coming from the sale of electricity to the national grid.”

For local governments desperate to find a way of dealing with their rubbish, subsidies from the electricity firms are a way to do it at no cost, simply by licensing a waste-to-energy generator.

“Government franchising of these plants provides a platform for the public and private sectors to cooperate on waste processing, with franchises possible for collection, transportation and processing,” says franchising expert, Xu Zongwei. “Investment is significant and the return period is long. If private firms get involved they need to be clear on the difficulties and risks that may exist.”

However, Fu Tao, deputy chair of the China Environment Service Industry Association, stresses that “handling rubbish is one of the functions of government. It is still a public service. The government can invite others to help, but that does not absolve it of responsibility.”

Huo Weiya is operations and development manager for chinadialogue in Beijing and former editor-in-chief of Environmental Culture Newsletter, published by Green Student Forum, an environmental NGO established in 1996.

Homepage image from Green Sohu

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Garbage Sorting, the Way to Go

What shall we do with the garbage? Burning them is not the end of the story. Go ask the people living in the neighborhood of the landfills if their life quality has been affected, or check some stats to find out if waste incineration would lead to high morbidity among the residents close to incineration plants. The city is expanding, population is growing. So, more wastes will be produced. Unless a sorting and recycling system is set up to cut the garbage output and turn trash into energy, the city will remain trash-bound.

Translated by Yina

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous





How to establish refuse sorting and recycle mechanism?

Comment NO.1 is easy to understanding.For me, the key point is how to establish the recycle and process mechanism, and reduce the cost of waste disposal.

The government needs to draw up elaborate law and regulations,so that civilians will get accustomed to sorting carefully before dump rubbish. But this is not an easy job.

I am wondering,besides Japan, how the other countries deal with their waste? I am worried if Chinese can sort their rubbish carefully like Japanese. Indeed, large amounts of people havn't realized how big the issue is.

Translated by Tian Liang

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




In landfills many plastic films are covered above the refuse. Even though it is covered, will the composting of solid waste still have a serious effect on the soil after a long period of time? One more question: how long it will take the veritable mountain of domestic garbage to decompose?

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




Waste-sorting has been talked about for many years. I think that now even school children should understand it. So what is the real problem? Is the waste problem due to the city dwellers' lack of awareness or to a lack of a clear and workable system?
(Translated by Lei Wang)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous






The superiors should take the lead

Comment No. 2 is right. It's not easy to teach the common people habits like sorting rubbish. Even so, we should strive to do that.

For the time being I am living in Britian, where rubbish sorting is not as strict as in Japan. Still, citizens do their utmost to sort their household waste according to the rules. For example, there is a container for scrap in our house, one for bottles, one for cans and one for paper.

Frankly, I'm glad to ask for trouble, using three garbage bins in the house, because the government will classify and process them after I separate the rubbish downstairs. It is different from rubbish processing in Beijing, that all ends up buried in the same place. We feel embarrassed to litter when others follow the sorting well.

So, we shouldn't just say the public's awareness is so weak. Instead we should ask whether the government does a good job, takes the lead, and makes those self-conscious citizens feel satisfied?
(Translated by Tian Liang)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Classification of the rubbish

The key point is the leadership of the government. The government should make it easy for the people to classify the rubbish. Organic rubbish that is produced daily is a great resource waiting to be exploited. Whether we can use the biological processing technology to convert it into trash or treasure all depends on the government's power to implement a policy.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Reply to comment 3

Some biodegradable material is included in landfill waste, however, under a plastic membrane it will take much longer for everything to decay; much of the waste will not decay in our childrens lifetime. The organics will produce methane due to the lack of oxygen below the soil, and leachate (garbabe juice) will seep into the soil, groundwater, and possibly surface water if the lower membrane is punctured.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

food waste

Beijing already has a very effective informal sorting and recycling system based on the labor of about 300,000 migrants who buy and sell paper, plastic, metals and glass. A Japanese style system run by the government might raise efficiency, but only a very little bit. Most of the paper and plastic that ends up in Beijing's landfills is low quality and dirty and therefore labor intensive and polluting to recycle. Comment #6 is right: over 50% of Beijing's trash is food waste. Finding a way to separate and handle this kind of waste would need government support and funding and would be a good idea. It would probably not be profitable, but it would be environmentally beneficial. I know of no modern metropolis with an effective system for masses of food waste, so it developing a system would put Beijing on the cutting edge in urban environmental management.



Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


等离子垃圾处理器(利用氮气或氧气蒸腾剥离电子,在25,000高温下,把垃圾蒸发为基本形态)已经被证明是高效能、能使垃圾大量减少的清洁处理方式(减少超过95%的垃圾,剩余物仅为一些安全的可用于混凝土的固体),这个方法被欧洲国家广泛利用(如瑞典),很奇怪中国目前还没有使用这种方法。这种能量的产生来自于合成气体,它的使用可以减少垃圾处理的总成本,与垃圾填埋的成本差不多。by Zhuubaajie


Plasma Power

It is curious that plasma garbage incinerators (using nitrogen or oxygen gas streams stripped of electrons, and running at 25,000 degrees, to vaporize garbage back into elemental form), proven to be highly effective in clean disposal and massive volume reduction (over 95%, with the remaining solids safely usable for concrete) and widely adopted in Europe (such as in Sweden), is not being adopted in China. The power generation that comes from the syn gas produced can reduce the total cost to be competitive with landfill.

by Zhuubaajie

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


By Zhuubaajie

Getting Rid of Chemical Weapons

In fact, the additional promise of plasma incinerators is the efficacy in disposing of chemical weapons. Since the "incineration" uses high temperature plasma at 25,000 degrees to convert the "garbage" back into elemental form, almost all of the poisonous gases (nerve gas, mustard gas, etc.) can be rendered harmless. Given that the rich Japanese govt. has continued to welch on Japan's Chemical Warfare Convention commitments, and still have not removed or rendered harmless the 2,000,000 pcs. of chemical warfare ordnance that the Japanese army buried all over China 60 years ago, it is time for China to do it ourselves, and send the Japanese a bill.

by Zhuubaajie