GARBAGE IN CHINA
Chinese garbage truck
By some reckonings China produces a third of the world’s annual trash and garbage output. According to Statista, it produced about 235 million tons of garbage in 2020, down from 242 million tons in 2019. Other sources have different figures. In any case, China generates about a third of a kilogram of trash per person per day, about half that of an average American. Each urban dweller in China produces about a half ton of garbage a year.
Historically, garbage in China was disposed of in landfills. However, because of a shortage of land around cities and illegal dumping, especially in rural areas, incineration has been encouraged and the level of it has increased in recent years. Under the “Made in China 2025” initiate, China is trying reduce the amount of waste initially produced and recycle useful waste. Rising environmental awareness has generated interest in reducing the use of disposable or non-recyclable products. Responsible to reduce plastic and packaging is being shared across the board by governments, manufacturers, retailers and consumers. There is some degree of consumers using their buying power to purchase products made from recycled material and are otherwise environmentally-friendly. [Source: Statista, January 2022]
According to the press release for the book “Beijing Garbage”: “Why do central and local government initiatives aiming to curb the proliferation of garbage in Beijing and its disposal continue to be unsuccessful? Is the Uberization of waste picking through online-to-offline (O2O) garbage retrieval companies able to decrease waste and improve the lives of waste pickers? Most citizens of Beijing are well aware of the fact that their city is besieged by waste. Yet instead of taking individual action, they sit and wait for the governments at various levels to tell them what to do. And even if/when they adopt a proactive position, this does not last. Official education drives targeting the consumers are organized regularly and with modest success, but real solutions are not forthcoming. Various environmental non-governmental organizations are at work to raise the level of consciousness of the population, to change individual attitudes towards wasteful behavior, but seemingly with little overall effects. [Source: Beijing Garbage: A City Besieged by Waste, by Stefan Landsberger, Amsterdam University Press, April 2019]
Websites and Sources: China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environmental Protection (MEP) english.mee.gov.cn ; 2009 New York Times article on recycling nytimes.com ; EIN News Service’s China Environment News einnews.com/china/newsfeed-china-environment Wikipedia article on Environment of China ; Wikipedia ; China Environmental Protection Foundation (a Chinese Government Organization) cepf.org.cn/cepf_english ; ; China Environmental News Blog (last post 2011) china-environmental-news.blogspot.com ;Global Environmental Institute (a Chinese non-profit NGO) geichina.org ; Greenpeace East Asia greenpeace.org/china/en ; China Digital Times Collection of Articles chinadigitaltimes.net ; International Fund for China’s Environment ifce.org .
Sanitation in China
Sanitation facility access
improved: urban: 97.6 percent of population
rural: 90.6 percent of population
total: 94.9 percent of population
unimproved: urban: 2.4 percent of population
rural: 9.4 percent of population
total: 5.1 percent of population (2020 est.)
[Source: CIA World Factbook, 2022]
Proportion of population using basic sanitation services: 70 percent.
Proportion of population using limited sanitation services: 23 percent.
Proportion of population using unimproved sanitation services: 92 percent.
Proportion of population practising open defecation: 3 percent.
[Source: UNICEF DATA data.unicef.org]
In the 1990s, many rural people lacked adequate sanitation. Outhouses and fields were what people used in villages not flush toilets.
Traditionally, nothing was wasted in China: human waste was (and still is in some places) collected from family outhouses and used as fertilizer. Outhouses in rural China were often placed near pig sties so waste could be collected from both sources and used for fertilizer. China has a long history of using human excrement — “night soil” — as fertilizer. The morning distribution of night soil used to be a common sight throughout China.
Garbage and Sanitation in China in the Past
In the old days garbage from apartment complexes in many Chinese cities was transported by tractor to communes beyond the suburbs where it is dumped into methane-producing pits filled with weeds, rice stalks and animal and human wastes. The methane gas that was produced was transported by clear plastic pipes to ring burners in individual homes that were turned on with a spigot and lit with a match. [Source: Peter White, National Geographic, April 1983]
In the past garbage wasn’t much of a problem. Nie Yomgfend, a waste management expert at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, told AP, “Trash was never complicated before, because we didn’t have supermarkets we didn’t have fancy packaging and endless things to buy, Now suddenly, the government is panicking about the mountains of garbage piling up with no place to put it all. “ Consumption of packaged foods rose 10.8 percent a year between 2000 and 2008 and is expected to rise 74 percent between 2008 and 2013 with the value of the packaged food reaching $195 billion.
On sanitation in 19th Century China , Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”, published in 1894 : ““Few inconveniences of the Celestial Empire make upon the Western mind a more speedy and a more indelible impression, than,the entire absence of “sanitation." Whenever there has been an attempt made to accomplish something in the way of drainage, as in Peking, the resultant evils are very much greater than those which they were designed to cure. No matter how long one has lived in China, he remains in a condition of mental suspense, unable to decide that most interesting question, so often raised, which is the, filthiest city in the Empire? A visitor from one of the northern provinces, boasted to a resident in Amoy, that in offensiveness to the senses, no city in south China could equal those of the north. With a view to decide this moot point, the city of Amoy, was extensively traversed, and found to be unexpectedly clean — that is, for a Chinese city. Jealous for the pre-eminence of his adopted home, the Amoy resident claimed that he was taken at a disadvantage, as a heavy rain had recently done much to wash the streets! The traveller thinks he has found the worst Chinese city when he has inspected Fuzhou, he is certain of it when he visits Ningpo, and doubly are on arriving in Tianjin. Yet after all, it will not be strange if he heartily recants when he reviews with candour and impartiality the claims of Peking!” [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]
China Now the World’s No.1 Trash Producer
Julie Makinen wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “China has surpassed the United States to become the world's largest trash producer, churning out more than 260 million tons a year. Beijing's 20 million residents generate about 18,000 tons a day, most of which goes to landfills. With household trash volume rising at least 5 percent annually, according to the city, authorities are building new incinerators, though that's caused concern about further dirtying the capital's already smoggy skies. [Source: Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times, September 29, 2012 \=]
“A Beijing-based environmental group, Friends of Nature, says more than 95 percent of the packaging is unnecessary, and even when the material can be recycled, the process uses energy and can contribute to water and air pollution. China is rapidly transforming from a rural nation to an urban one, and officials are pushing to "rebalance" the economy so that consumer spending accounts for a bigger share of gross domestic product. Ever-greater numbers of city dwellers eager to buy fancier things have created vast new business opportunities, but the environmental costs are also on the rise.” \=\
Daniel Bardsley wrote in The National, “According to estimates from campaigners, Beijing produces 30,000 tonnes of waste each day, and with the quantity growing about 8 per cent a year, the capital's rubbish dumps are filling up fast. Reports indicate just 4 per cent of Beijing's rubbish is recycled.
"China in a short time went from very poor to very rich. It has a lot of pent-up hunger to have things. There's this desire to consume stuff and much of it ends up in landfills," said Wang Jiuliang, a local filmmaker who made a documentary based on visiting more than 400 landfills around Beijing. "It's difficult for the authorities to keep up. China has embarked on a consumer-based society, but it hasn't done the necessary homework, it hasn't prepared for these types of consumers." His film, Beijing Besieged by Waste, is being screened in the UAE capital as part of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival. [Source: Daniel Bardsley, The National, October 17, 2011]
“There are fears the filling up of the landfills is having wider consequences, in particular that some are leaking pollutants into the groundwater. Landfills are also suspected of causing respiratory problems, said Li Bo, director of the Beijing pressure group Friends of Nature, with "phenomenally high" rates of asthma in areas close to dumps. "The landfill problem is very serious," he said. "We're concerned about the landfill mega-projects that emit very smelly odours and it's very harmful." With some campaigners saying Beijing's landfill sites will be full within five years, officials have set a target that 40 per cent of waste will be burnt at incinerators. Yet this raises concerns over the release of hazardous substances, such as the potentially carcinogenic dioxins produced from burning plastics.
Thrown Out and Reused Clothing in China
According to Bloomberg: China into the world’s biggest fashion market. Most of China’s purchases are fast fashion — mass produced, cheap, short-lived garments. The result: China throws away 26 million tons of clothes every year, less than 1 percent of which is reused or recycled, according to state news agency Xinhua. [Source: Bloomberg News, October 19, 2020]
“The environmental cost of this waste is huge. The fashion industry accounts for around 10 percent of global carbon emissions, more than is produced by all flights and maritime shipping combined, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. By one estimate, reusing 1 kilogram of clothing saves 3.6 kg of carbon dioxide, 6,000 liters of water, 0.3 kg of chemical fertilizers and 0.2 kg of insecticides, compared with making garments from virgin resources.
“Not long ago, China was a major importer. In small towns in coastal provinces like Fujian and Guangdong, sorting and selling used clothes from shipping containers of “foreign waste” used to be big business. But in 2017 China banned the import of 24 kinds of solid wastes, including textile products, forcing shippers to look for other destinations in Asia, or to recycle more waste at source. “This is highlighting what is happening the global markets as a whole,” said Alan Wheeler, general delegate of the textiles division at the Bureau of International Recycling. “Markets are becoming increasingly crowded. From an environmental point of view, the fact that Chinese people are sending more clothing for re-use and recycling is a good thing, but it also presents a real issue.”
“One ray of hope is a small, but growing number of startups looking for novel ways to reuse old clothing. Re-Clothing Bank employs migrant women in a village near Beijing to cut up old clothes and make them into patchwork jackets, bags and carpets. “A middle aged security guard in Shanghai spent half his monthly salary to buy a coat I made from old clothes,” said Zhang Na, the startup’s founder. “That was when I thought there is a future in this.”
Discouraging Plastic Bag Use in China
In January 2008, the Chinese government banned shops from giving out free plastic bags, and asked consumers to use baskets and cloth bags instead in an effort to reduce pollution. “White pollution” — a reference to the color of many of the bags given out stores — is an eyesore problem in much of China. The ban presented a problem for small store owners who often sold items like rice, peanuts, eggs and sugar by weight and gave them to customers in flimsy plastic bags. The Chinese government’s aim is to reduce the use of bags by two thirds, saving the equivalent of 30,000 barrels of oil a day. In June 2008 a ban was imposed on production of the flimsiest of the plastic bags (those 0.025 millimeters thick or thinner), the ones that are often the most ubiquitous and damaging to the environment. Fees are charged for thicker plastic bags.
Chinese often shop at several different places — a vegetable stand, a meat vendor and egg seller, for example — buying small quantities at each stop and putting what they buy into a different plastic bag at each place. Customers sometimes ask shop keeper to provide a bag for each thing they buy, in some cases for each individual egg. In the Mao era, customers had their purchases wrapped in paper and carried them home in cloth or net bags. The practice continued until the 1980s when people began shopping more and more at supermarkets and carrying their purchases home in plastic bags. By the mid 2000s, three billion plastic bags were being given out everyday, with many Chinese thinking nothing of tossing them to wind. The result: plastic bags everywhere, in trees, hedges, river banks and streets, even the remotest mountains of Tibet and the harshest deserts of Xinjiang.
The Chinese are not expected to have that much trouble switching to cloth, vinyl and bamboo bags because it was the norm to use these kinds of bags until the 1990s. However, efforts by Chinese authorities to ban plastic packing material, disposable wooden chopsticks, plastic lunch trays and throwaway cosmetic items given out free at hotels have been mostly ignored.
The ban on plastic bags has been criticized for not being very well thought out. For example, if people switch to thicker plastic bags then they’ll be consuming more not less plastic. It is also not clear what the penalty is for using or giving out the thin bags, with many saying that unless the fine is high the ban will be ignored. One fishmonger told the Los Angeles Times, “This whole thing is a big publicity stunt. Plastic is so convenient...you won’t change people’s habits.” Demand for plastic in China has caused the price of recycled PET bottles to rise, with prices increasing 2.6 times between mid 2006 and mid 2008, as industries that use plastic looked for alternatives as the price of oil and plastic made with petrochemicals soared. This has had an effect on the global plastic industry as companies that relied on plastic from pet bottles are left with plastic as sellers sell their plastic to China instead of them.
Efforts to Cut Down on Disposable Chopsticks and Single Use Plastic in China
Most disposable chopsticks in China are made of bamboo or scraps from flooring and furniture factories. These material are processed into chopsticks with automated cutting machines. Chopsticks are used locally and exported. In 2006, 119,413 tons of bamboo chopsticks was exported, mostly to Japan. The Chinese are trying to cut down on the use of disposable wooden chopsticks by encouraging restaurant goers to use reusable plastic chopsticks. To promote the use of plastic chopsticks the government has placed a 5 percent tax on disposable ones. There is a lot of resistant to plastic chopsticks among customers who regarded plastic ones as unhygienic. Restaurant personnel don’t like them either. Disposable wooden chopsticks only cost a third of a cent a pair and no one has to clean them.
China’s National Development and Reform Commission and the Ministry of Ecology and Environment banned plastic bags in all of China's major cities in of 2020 and banned them in all cities and towns in 2022. Markets selling fresh produce are exempt from the ban until 2025. Other items such as plastic utensils from takeaway food outlets and plastic courier packages will also be phased out. By the end of 2020, the restaurant industry was required to ban single-use straws. By 2025, towns and cities across China must reduce the consumption of single-use plastic items in the restaurant industry by 30 percent. [Source: Reuters, January 20, 2020]
“The production and sale of plastic bags less than 0.025mm thick will be banned, as will plastic film less than 0.01mm thick for agricultural use. Some regions and sectors will also face restrictions on the production and sale of plastic products, although it is not yet clear which geographical areas. China also banned the import of all plastic waste, and the use of medical plastic waste in the production of plastic. China boosted recycling rates and built dozens of "comprehensive resource utilisation" bases to ensure that more products are reused as part of its war on waste.
Garbage Disposal and Incinerators in China
China suffers from a lack of space for landfills. About 85 percent of China’s 7 billion tons of trash is in landfills, much of it in unlicensed dumps in the countryside. Most have only thin linings of plastic under them or nothing at all. Rain causes bacteria, heavy metals and ammonia to drip into the groundwater, soil and drinking water supplies.
Decomposing garbage produces methane and carbon dioxide. If the garbage disposal system isn’t improved some say China could suffer from heath problems. Increasingly incineration is seen as China’s way to solve this problem. In Beijing taking out the trash in a hutong means taking whatever garbage you have — uneaten noodles, cabbage leaves, eggshells, paper — and dumping them on a designated street corner. Several time a day a rubbish collector shovel up the mess and carts it away. Before the trash is collected the pile of garbage can be over a meter tall and quite smelly. Once a year a member of the district committees goes around door to door and collects a $4 fee from each household for the service. The system has been in place for decades, perhaps centuries. About a third of China’s garbage is recycled or composted.
The Chinese government has said in the future that China wants to incinerate 30 percent of the nation’s waste. This and the fact that China is expected to produce increasingly large amounts of trash and garbage have attracted the interest of waste management companies around the globe such as Hera in Italy and Interseroh in Germany and companies that make incinerators technology like Hitachi in Japan and Covabta in the United States.
For China to make the leap to incinerators it has to generate more combustible trash. As it stands now Chinese rubbish is too soggy for be burned efficiently in generators but as China’s become more middle class and produces a higher percentage of trash composed of paper, plastic and polystyrene packaging — all of which burn well — rather than discarded vegetables and other soggy garbage its trash will be more incinerator-friendly. Chinese incinerators are allowed to emit ten times the dioxin levels of American incinerators. Investments in incinerators, much of them using advanced foreign technologies, could reach $10 billion.
Rural Landfills in China
Beer bottle recycling China’s garbage problem can particularly nasty for the poor villages on the outskirts of large cities that have had landfills placed in their backyards. Zhanglidong, a village outside of Zhengzhou, city with 8 million people, for example, has a landfill the size of 20 football field placed near it. One resident told AP, “Life here went from heaven to hell in an instant — when the landfill was opened. Among the problems associated with the dump that she ticked off were clouds of mosquitoes, piles rotted, insect-filled peaches and cherries, unharvested fields contaminated with smelly, toxic and an increase in health problems such as bronchitis and skin disease.
Villagers that live within a 100 meters of the dump are given $15 a month in compensation. They have said they were never consulted about the decision to put the dump near their village. Their efforts to petition the government over the problem have produced few results as have their efforts to physically block the trucks that bring the garbage from Zhengzhou. One villager told AP, “We villagers were too naive...we didn’t know what a landfill was. If we had known earlier about all the pollution it would cause, we would have done everything possible to stop the construction process. Now it too late.” In 2008 farmers in Hubei Province clashed with police over illegal dumping near their homes. A person who filmed the clashes was beaten to death by police. Also last year residents of central Beijing stormed the office of environment ministry to voice their objection to smells from a landfill and plans for an incinerator in their backyard.
Wang Jiuliang and His Films About Plastic and Garbage
“Plastic China” (2016), a documentary by Wang Jiuliang, follows the members of two families in China who spend their lives sorting and recycling plastic waste imported from the United States, Europe, and Asia. Yijie, an eleven-year-old girl, works alongside her migrant parents from Sichuan in a recycling plant in Shandong while yearning to return home and attend school. Kun, the facility’s boss, aspires to buy a new car and to secure a better life for his family. Through the story of these two families, this poignant film explores not only waste recycling, but also social and gender inequality, urbanization, consumerism, and globalization. “Plastic China” won the Special Jury Award at the 2016 International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), the prize for Best Film on Sustainable Development at the 2017 Millennium International Documentary Film Festival in Belgium, and was nominated for Best Documentary at the 2017 Golden Horse Film Festival in Taiwan. [Source: Jin Liu, MCLC Resource Center Publication, May 2020]
“Born in 1976, Wang studied photography at the Communication University of China in Beijing, a preeminent institution for training journalists and media professionals. From 2008 to 2011, he investigated garbage disposal in and around Beijing and produced the documentary “Beijing Besieged by Waste” (2011). It took him six years to finish his second documentary, “Plastic China” (2011-2016), which earned him the Best Director Award at the 2017 “One World” International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival in Prague. He now works as an independent filmmaker based in Beijing.
On the making of “Besieged by Garbage, Wang told Jin Liu at an interview conducted at Georgia Tech University: “I grew up in a rural village, so I have a special natural bond with earth and soil...In the summer of 2008, I returned to my hometown, a small rural village. I needed to find particularly clean natural environments to use as backgrounds for the photographs. But such places are hard to find now. Everywhere, covered by plastic tarps, there is the so-called modern agriculture, which has produced a countless number of discarded pesticide and chemical fertilizer packages scattered across the fields, ditches, and ponds. With the problem of garbage in mind, I started a videographic investigation of the state of garbage pollution around the city of Beijing in October 2008. My investigation revealed that 11 large-scale refuse landfills affiliated with the municipal environmental sanitation services system are scattered around the close suburbs of Beijing. Each landfill occupies tens of hectares of land, some of which have grown into mountains of garbage over 50 meters high. Out of concern for individual rights and interests, protests against these landfills have been steady; despite such efforts, the landfills grow taller and taller.
When Making “Beijing Besieged by Waste: “I discovered a whole community of persons who were making a living on garbage, building their houses from discarded construction materials, and wearing clothes they had gleaned in the trash. Many of their children were born there. These kids, they thought the world was supposed to be like this, a world full of garbage, dirt, and waste. And this world is what we, the adults, produced and left behind for our children, our next generation. It’s incredibly sad...People involved in one way or another with the illegal dump sites, in the interest of keeping their trade clandestine, are quite cautious toward outsiders. Because people with cameras on their backs are especially unwelcome, it was impossible to shoot freely at these sites. In fact, I was frequently refused entrance, berated, chased by wolfhounds, or threatened with cooking knives. Several times I was kept hostage and my photographs were deleted from my cameras. In order to photograph these dump sites in detail, I was, therefore, forced come up with creative solutions. Sometimes I pretended that I was there to repurpose garbage and looked for opportunities to take pictures when I was granted entrance. More often than not, I engaged in a kind of guerrilla warfare with the guards, quickly shooting pictures and leaving when they were not paying attention. I also looked for commanding heights, such as treetops, or high-voltage electricity poles, where I could take pictures that captured the entirety of a site including its surroundings.
Illegal Dumps Outside Beijing and the Underground Garbage Chain
Wang said: I learned that, in actuality, the garbage we produce does not all go to legitimate, government-affiliated refuse landfills. A considerable amount of the garbage is channeled to the so-called underground garbage industrial chain. This garbage is purchased at a low price within the city, transported outside the city center, and sorted by scavengers employed for this task. This is how so many illegal garbage sites have come into existence in hidden corners of the city. The particular details of their geographical distribution are effectively unknown, as are their exact numbers. [Source: Wang Jiuliang,, cross-currents.berkeley.edu, dgeneratefilms.com]
At first, I did not know where these illegal dump sites were. So, I rode my motorcycle and followed suspicious-looking garbage trucks. This is how I found the first few garbage dump sites. I carefully studied the visual characteristics of these garbage dump sites and used this information to find similar sites on satellite photographs of greater Beijing, marking every location that might be a potential dump site. Then, I went to each of the noted locations and confirmed their status. Using this method, I identified hundreds of illegal garbage dump sites one after another. Up to the end of 2010, I visited five hundred dump sites, one after another, covering 15,000 kilometers in and around Beijing. I took more than ten thousand photographs and shot over 60 hours of video footage. In these pictures, I did not focus on the squalid and chaotic details of the dump sites.
Instead, my emphasis was on the relationship between these dump sites and the surrounding natural environment and conditions of human life. When I saw herds of sheep and cows grazing in these dump sites, and knew that almost all of the pigs were fed with restaurant waste from all over the city, I felt a deep concern for our food safety. Standing within these garbage sites, looking at the high-rise buildings under construction nearby, I thought, maybe the tidy streets and beautiful communities are only pleasant illusions. It is the dump sites, on the contrary, that are the reality behind the facade of the city.
Scavengers and Conditions at the Illegal Dumps Outside Beijing
Ragpickers from the 1920s
Wang said: The conditions of these illegal dump sites are appalling. Perhaps only when you stand amid them, can you feel the immensity of the garbage. It often occupies tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of square meters of land and is over ten meters deep. At first, when I stood on garbage piles that were sticky, slippery, loose, and soft, I did not dare to move, fearing that I might be devoured by the refuse. The air was rank with a thick stench. I got dizzy and experienced headaches after less than ten minutes. The dump sites are so full of flies in the summer that the faces of anyone in the vicinity are covered with them, and the flies are impossible to drive away. Many scavengers work in such conditions, with no protection whatsoever, not even a breathing mask. [Source: Wang Jiuliang,, cross-currents.berkeley.edu, dgeneratefilms.com]
I have great respect for these scavengers. Although they are in an ancient and humble trade, deep in their hearts they harbor the hope and dream of a better life. To understand their lives at a deeper level, I lived at the largest construction waste site for three months. At its peak, more than 2,000 migrant peasant workers lived there, in make-shift shacks built from materials scavenged from construction waste. Women, using hooks, poked around for small objects of value from the waste, and men, swinging huge hammers in their hands, smashed concrete blocks to collect any steel inside. As the sweat of the adults infused the site, the place was also filled with the laughter and commotion of children playing and running around.
My photography of this waste site began with the children of the scavengers. As I took these pictures, I learned that almost all of the children younger than ten had spent their childhoods on the dump site. Any understanding of the outside world they had had been gleaned from the tiny televisions in their homes. On these dump sites, the children scavenge for toys and play barefoot in the garbage. Even though these dump sites are in many ways barren, there is a kind of irrepressible weedlike vitality there that often exuded passion and confidence toward life!
Image Sources: 1) Ohio State University; 2) Gary Baasch; 3) Environmental News; 4) Johomaps; 5) Nolls China website ; 6) Guardian, Environmental News; 7) Bucklin archives; 8) Agroecology; 9) Kyodo, Environmental News ; 10) trash containers Asia Obscura
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated June 2022