If environmental issues concern the whole world, it is even more noticeable in China, the world’s largest trash producer. As an expat in Wuhan, a city already considered as very polluted, have you ever wondered where your plastic bottle goes after you have thrown it away? Where does your old TV end up?
85% of China’s trash are disposed in landfills but rain, bacteria and other heavy metal get into the ground and water supplies.
If you knew all the facts, would it make a difference?
China produces more than 260 million tons of garbage a year, which represents approximately 58 million elephants! This huge and scary figure is mainly due to the fact that the country keeps providing its people “fancier things”, which increases the need to consume more. An article from the Los Angeles Times in 2012 demonstrated how this consuming circle has ” […] greatly increased the number of business opportunities, leading to the increase of environmental costs.” (Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times, September 29, 2012)
Authorities now find it more and more difficult to keep up with the Chinese way of consuming, especially because of the lack of preparation. If most of the packaging is unnecessary, it still represents a huge part of the marketing process that brands tend to follow to make you buy more. It is attractive but most of the time, it is useless.
And in practice, how does it work?
Have you noticed the Chinese people on tricycles with a large amount of garbage on them? Those people are called the trash collectors and are usually specialized in one kind of material: paper, cardboard, broken appliances… The rest of the garbage is most of the time collected by trucks.
The trash disposal in China can be divided in two major ways: landfills and incinerators.
Following the investigation of Wang Jiuliang, a Chinese filmmaker, we learn that landfills are usually only a few kilometers away from big cities and represent hectares of land, where the piles of garbage sometimes exceed 50 meters high. Some landfills in Henan for example, can exceed the size of 20 football fields!
Through Wang Jiuliang’s documentary, the truth hurts as we find out that a lot of Chinese people living in those areas work there as scavengers, spending the day in a stinking mixture of all the possible trash imaginable. And for what? 700 yuans a month.
The concern is real and people living in the countryside suffer from the smells and the dangers initiated by landfilling. “85% of China’s trash are disposed in landfills but rain, bacteria and other heavy metal get into the ground and water supplies. The disposal needs to be improved otherwise some serious health issues will rise in the next few years in China.’’ (Wang Jiuiang, cross-currents.berkeley.edu, dgeneratefilms.com)
The Chinese government has put in place new incinerators but because of the lack of trash separation, China uses coal or oil to be able to burn the whole amount of trash. This practice will increase the number of dangerous substances in the next few years, provoking some health issues for the people living near those areas.
There is hope but it needs work!
If the World Bank estimates that China will produce twice as much solid waste as the United States by 2030, the waste business still has a very lucrative potential as long as things are being done the right way.
The American professor Judith Shapiro wrote in her book “China’s Environmental Challenges” (2012) that there is a “lack of reliable data and transparency that surrounds the incineration industry.” Efforts are being made but compared to the increasing quantity of trash, some Chinese people are still not fully aware of the actual dangers and not all politicians take the people’s active participation into account. In 2012, Guangzhou Party Secretary, Wang Qingliang, declared that “efforts to sort and reduce waste will fail unless all of the cities’ residents take an active part in the process and separate waste.”
Following this trend, the United Nations Development Program China (UNDP China) and Baidu have developed a mobile application dedicated to e-waste, capable of identifying the type of appliance and estimated price of the device by taking a picture of it with a Smartphone. Therefore, the user can be linked with a legal certified disposal company for safe disposal recycling. Only available in 22 cities for now, the application is becoming more and more successful and tends to make people aware of what they can actually do to help.
China still has a long way to go but by separating the waste accordingly, the government is making a step forward. Now it is time for the whole population, especially in big cities, to feel concerned about this increasing global problem.
As an expat, what can you do ?
If you want to participate and play your part, first know that the way China recycles is very different from our Western process. You won’t find labeled containers and when you see the outside bins with the inscriptions “Recyclable” and “Not recyclable” on them, don’t believe that. All goes in the same truck at the end of the day.
Therefore, if you want to recycle effectively, first start by separating the recyclable and non-recyclable trash at home. Paper, cardboard, plastic, cans, old appliances and also glass: as long as it is clean, your trash will end up at the right place. Put the recyclable trash in the space dedicated to it. Usually, it is at the entrance of the building, near the stairs but if you have any doubt, ask the “务业Bureau” of your residence (Residence Management Bureau). They will tell you where to put your trash and once or twice a week, your recyclable waste will be picked up by a trash collector.
It’s easy, it doesn’t take more time and by doing this; you will allow some people to actually survive and earn money from this business.
Don’t wait and see, it’s time to act !