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Chinese garbage truck
China produces 254 million tons of garage a year, or about a third of a kilogram per person per day — a third of the world’s annual trash and garbage output. Even though the average Chinese dumps only half the garbage that average American does that level will grow by about 4 percent a year until it reaches around 50 percent more than what it is now. Each urban dweller in China produces about a half ton of garbage a year.

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 old days 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.

Websites and Resources

Good Websites and Sources: 2009 New York Times article on recycling ; China Environmental Law blog article ; Treehugger article ; E-Waste in Guiyu ; CBS News article on Garbage in China Book: “The River Runs Black” by Elizabeth C. Economy (Cornell, 2004) is one of the best recently-written books on China’s environmental problems. In his book “China on the Edge: the Crisis of Ecology and Development in China”, the Chinese intellectual He Bochun argues that in many ways China's environmental problems have already reached catastrophic levels. On the Environment: China Environmental News Blog ; China.Org (Chinese Government Environmental News ; New York Times Multimedia Series on Pollution in China ; China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) ; EIN News Service’s China Environment News Wikipedia article on Environment of China ; Wikipedia ; China Environmental Protection Foundation (a Chinese Government Organization) ;Global Environmental Institute (a Chinese non-profit NGO) ; Beijing Energy Network (a Chinese grassroots environmental group) ; Greenpeace China ; China Digital Times Collection of Articles ; Brief History of Chinese Environment ; Article on Wetlands Degradation ; Useful But Dated Source List on te Environment and China ; China Environmental Forum at the Wilson Center ; International Fund for China’s Environment ; China Watch ; China Environmental law Blog ; World Resources Institute ; China Environmental Industry Network


China Now the World’s No.1 Trash Producer

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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. >>>

Garbage Disposal 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.

Rural Landfills in China

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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.

Incinerators in China

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.

Recycling in China

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In China recycling is done by the trash collectors who specialize in different kinds of refuse — rubber, aluminum, tin, plastic, paper — and either collect these materials by going house to house or sort through the garbage, selling what they find to traders. Garbage collectors called rag and bone men ply the alleys of the cities, pedaling heavy bicycles, banging on pots and shouting, “Sell your rubbish, sell your rubbish.”On recycling in his Beijing hutong,

Peter Hessler wrote in The New Yorker, “On average a recycler passes through every half hour, riding a flat-bed tricycle. They purchase cardboard, paper, Styrofoam, and broken appliances. They buy old books by the kilogram and dead televisions by the square inch. Appliances can be repaired or stripped for parts, and the paper and plastic are sold to the recycling centers for the barest of profits: the margins of trash.” “I pulled some useless possessions in the entranceway of my apartment and invited each passing recycler inside to see what everything was worth. A stack of old magazines sold for 62 cents; a burn-out computer chord went for a nickel. Two broken maps were seventeen cents. A worn out pair of shoes, 12 cents. Two broken Palm Pilots, 37 cents. I gave one man a marked-up manuscript of the book I’d been writing, and he pulled out a scale, weighed the pages, and paid me 15 cents.”

An estimated 160,000 collectors in Beijing who make a living from recycling plastic sheeting, office printouts, bottles, radiators, scraps of cardboard and other recyclable stuff. Some of it ends up in Dongxiaokou, a village on the outskirts of Beijing composed of scrap with blocks of crushed metal stacked in a tower, and heaps of plastic bottles, and piles of newspapers and rags filling yards. [Source: Tania Branigan, The Guardian, January 9, 2009]

Recycling has become a global industry and China is the largest importer of the world's waste materials, taking in as much as a third of Britain's recyclables and the entire U.S. west coast waste paper market, much of it sent to factories run by China’s richest woman in southern China.

Scavengers in China

Daniel Bardsley wrote in The National, “When Zhu Xuemei moved to the Chinese capital, she was looking for "a better life and a better job", but things have not turned out as she hoped. Now working as a scavenger on a landfill site in the far south of Beijing, she spends her days knee-deep in a stinking mixture of greasy plastic bags, packaging, rotting fruit peel and used toilet paper. Her job is to separate out anything worth keeping - including drinks cans, glass jars, plastic bags and old food trays. For this, the 41-year-old from a village in southern Sichuan province earns about 700 yuan (Dh 403) a month. "This wasn't what I expected. I came to Beijing to earn some money but it's very hard to find suitable work," she said. [Source: Daniel Bardsley, The National, October 17, 2011]

The scavengers, about a dozen of them at this landfill in Daxing district, constantly turn over the rubbish using pitchforks, throwing useful items into vast sacks arranged around them. There are flies everywhere and even a chicken pecking at the rubbish. Lorries full of yet more rubbish arrive regularly. The newly wealthy residents of urban China are producing more rubbish than ever before. And most of it ends up in landfills like this.

Many Chinese have found that they can make more money working as scavengers, collecting plastic trash bags, tin cans and rubber soles of shoes, than they can working as farmers or day laborers. Some of them work at landfills dodging bulldozers and extracting materials from the fetid heaps. One scavenger who earned enough to pay the tuition fees at an expensive, exclusive high school for his daughter told the New York Times, “We worked really hard as laborers before, doing 12-to 15-hour days for a mere few hundred yuan, You have to work even if you are sick or tired, here we are working for ourselves, and there is a lot more freedom — four to five hours a day, plus we can earn a lot more.” Another scavenger said he made enough to take care of his 60-year-old father.

At one Australian-run Shanghai dump, scavengers are despised by the dump owners because they haul away all the recyclable materials, leaving nothing for the dump, plus they slow the work down by getting in the way. The manager of the dump, told the New York Times , “As soon as you tip the truck there will be 50 people running all about the machines — quite big machines...I don’t have the statistics, but quite a few people have been crushed.” In Beijing, about 170,000 migrant workers scour streets and rummage through trash bins for recyclable items they can sell. Some of them live among piles of trash at large recycling centers. A study of these workers found they process about one third of Beijing’s trash but most have criminal records and 70 percent have contacted infectious diseases such as dysentery, hepatitis and typhoid which they can pass on to others.

Wang Jiuliang and His Films About Plastic and Garbage

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Beer bottle recycling
“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. It 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. In 2007-2008, he completed a series of photographs about Chinese traditional folk religion. From 2008 to 2011, he investigated garbage disposal in and around Beijing and produced the documentary “Beijing Besieged by Waste” (2011) as well as a series of photographs with the same name. 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.

Wang told Jin Liu at an interview conducted at Georgia Tech University: “I was trained as a photographer, and have always been concerned about social reality in contemporary China. But when I tried to shoot reality, I found that photographic narrative has many limitations. When I started the project “Beijing Besieged by Waste”, at the very beginning I had mainly been taking photos. Soon, however, after two months of doing this, I was eager to embrace documentary filmmaking, something that integrates both the visual and the audio. Pictures were simply insufficient to tell the stories that I witnessed at those garbage dumpsites. Filming has more narrative power, and that’s how I finished my first documentary film. As for my second project, about imported plastic waste in China, the use of film became a natural choice for me. A film enables you to present a complicated issue more comprehensively, informatively, and sharply.

“I grew up in a rural village, so I have a special natural bond with earth and soil. Most of my work is related to space, or more specifically, to earth. In a sense, both of the films I’ve made so far are about geographic space. This has to do with my childhood experience, when I lived very close to nature. Before embarking on these environmental projects, I made a series of photos on traditional Chinese folk religions, entitled “Beliefs in Ghosts and Spirits”. They are art for the sake of art. But gradually I found there was a big gap between these beautiful pictures and the grim social reality. These images may be relevant to me, as some reflect the ghost stories that my grandma told me when I was a kid, but probably not to anyone else in this society. I need to face society, not ignore it. The documentary genre became a way for me to engage society.

On the making of “Besieged by Garbage, Wang said: 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. As for the baby in figure 5, this was the first time he’d ever been photographed. He was sitting in a basin, which is auspicious; remember the Chinese term, jubaopen [a basin for gathering treasure]? With respect to the goats grazing over the KFC leftovers, in a sense, the human being is no different from these animals, both being fed with and consuming the same food. At the same time, you get a sense of how pervasive and invasive the global fast-food culture is. It’s ubiquitous.

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,,,]

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

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Ragpickers from the 1920s
Wang said: 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. [Source: Wang Jiuliang,,,]

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.

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!

Large Scale Recycling in China

Industrial scale recycling is being introduced to China especially since the price of raw materials and demand for them has risen, creating more an economic incentive to harvest these material from trash. China also receives large amounts of recycled materials from abroad. More than half of all the PET bottles turned in in Britain are recycled in China.

China is a world leader in recycling waste paper on a global scale. About 60 percent of the fiber used to manufacture paper and paperboad profucts in China is derived from waste paper. Imports of waste paper in China increased 500 percent from 3.1 million tons in 1996 to 19.6 million tons in 2006.

Zhang Yin, one of China’s and the world’s richest women, made a large part of her fortune buying up waste paper in the United States and shipping it to China to be made into packaging. Some environmentalists credit Chinese paper recyclers with doing more than other industrial or government sector to slow the cutting of the world’s forests. According to the Washington-D.C.-based Forest Trend Chinese use of waste paper in 2006 prevented 54 million tons of wood from being harvested for pulp.

Scrap Metal, Paper, See Resources China is seeking help from Japan on recycling and handling different types of pollution and environmental problems.

See Deforestation

Recycling Industry in China Collapses

In late 2008 and early 2009, in the midst of the global economic crisis, the recycling industry in China collapsed as demand for packaging plummeted. Official media reported that four-fifths of China's recycling units had closed and millions lost their jobs. Across the scrap trade, prices have halved or worse in a matter of months. Each link in the chain is disintegrating, from factories to scrapyards to collectors.[Source: Tania Branigan, The Guardian, January 9, 2009]

A buyer of plastic waste told The Guardian: “I've been in this business for 15 years and it's been bad before, but never this severe. Everyone's lost a huge amount of money and some can't sell their stock. Usually we sell to factories and they recycle them into plastic chips. But the price of chips has dropped so it's had a knock-on effect on us.” [Ibid]

“Beijing dealers were particularly hard hit,” Tania Branigan wrote in The Guardian. “They stockpiled large quantities of recyclables because prices were soaring, but as the market began to soften, the Olympic security clampdown prevented trucks from entering the capital. The merchants could only watch as the value of their holdings plummeted.”

“In a good year we can earn about 50,000 yuan but this year we lost 200,000,” another plastics recycler told The Guardian. “We came here more than 10 years ago and at the beginning we collected ourselves. Then we managed to start the business. We were too poor to get loans but we managed to borrow 100,000-200,000 from friends and relatives and we work from morning to night every day. But we haven't paid them all back because of our losses.”

Adam Minter, who runs the Shanghai Scrap blog and specializes in the metal trade, told The Guardian the predicament was typical of the trade. “People would borrow money from relatives and buy a container of scrap and then throw all that money back in and reinvest it. Great if it goes up - but the moment it starts slipping, especially if it's slipping 20-30 percent, you're finished,” he said. Gong said: “Once we have sold all this stock we'll leave. My son's sorting it because we can't afford workers any more. We haven't figured out what to do next. We have seven people in the family and only 2.5-3 mu [less than half an acre] of farmland. It's too many people and too little land, so even if we go home there's not much we can do. We have both old and young to support.” [Ibid]

The effects were felt across China. Branigan wrote: “Most of Gong's customers were plastics recyclers in Wen'an, Hebei, where by one estimate 93 percent of income depends on the trade. Some are already bankrupt. Wen'an Dongdu Jiacheng Recycling Resources is clinging on. But Miss Han, a materials buyer, said all but three of the 26 production line workers had been sent home for the new year holiday more than a month early.” [Ibid]

“There is no longer demand for plastic granules from nearby companies such as Hongkai Plastic Products, which made items such as bicycle handlebars. Its owner, Mr Zheng, has sent 20 workers home. “My factory was hit by the economic crisis - it's been closed for two months already,” he said. “We usually sell our products to a dealer and most of his business is exports. He didn't give us any more orders.” At a factory down the road, the response to queries was more brusque. “We've already gone bust,” said a man.” [Ibid]

The collapse of the Chinese recycling industry left Britain, the United States amd others grappling with growing volumes of recycled waste and nowhere to send it. Adam Minter, who runs the Shanghai Scrap blog and specializes in the metal trade, told The Guardian that until November 2008 “the entire [US] west coast paper market was sent to China and most of it was sent south. It was processed and made into packaging for products that then shipped back to the US ... But when US consumer demand dropped off, that broke the cycle.” [Source: Tania Branigan, The Guardian, January 9, 2009]

Recycling Vending Machines in China

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Migrant workers sorting recycled waste
In July 2012, Jonathan Watts wrote in The Guardian: Beijing's vast army of plastic-bottle scavengers will get an automated rival later this month, when the city introduces its first reverse vending machines that pay subway credits in exchange for returned containers. More than 100 recycle-to-ride devices will be installed in an attempt to reduce the environmental impact of the informal bottle collection business and improve the profits of the operator, which works in an industry thought to be worth billions of dollars. [Source: Jonathan Watts, The Guardian, July 4, 2012]

“Donors will receive between 5 fen and 1 mao (about 1 cent) on their commuter passes for each polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottle they insert into the machine, which then crushes them to a third of their original size and sorts them according to colour and type. "It will be as easy to use as an ATM," said an employee of the operating company, Incom, who declined to give her name. "We hope to put one at every station on the route [subway line 10] and later expand to other lines, bus stops and residential areas." The firm currently processes 50,000 tons of bottles a year, most of which it buys from informal collectors who roam the city's streets looking for discards, which they pack on to carts and bicycles. [Ibid]

“With the machines, the firm hopes to collect directly from the public and generate extra revenue from government subsidies and sales of advertising shown on the machine's screens. Incom says it plans to approach Coca-Cola and other beverage retailers. Similar devices have been used in several countries, including the US, Japan and Brazil, but they have benefited from civic mindedness, convenience and widespread ignorance about the true value of PET. [Ibid]

“Waste-trade experts are sceptical that the same business model will work in China, which already has a vast and highly competitive PETrecycling industry. Nobody knows the numbers of collectors, but estimates range from 500,000 to 20 million. Many go from door to door, or come when called. Adam Minter, a Shangai-based blogger and author of an upcoming book on China's scrap business, reckons that recycling may be the second most popular profession in the country after farming and that the PET market alone is worth billions of dollars. More significantly, he says the motives are also different, which will mean the reverse vending machine operators will have to offer competitive rates or they will struggle to attract takers. [Ibid]

“In the west, recycling is seen as a green activity. In developing Asia, it is an economic activity," Minter says. "One thing is guaranteed. If donors are not paid market price, it is not going to work." A similar device was launched in Shanghai several years ago, but has not made any noticeable dent in the informal industry. Incom says, however, that environmental benefits should be considered alongside economic factors.While most informal PET recycling workshops re-use the plastic for clothes and create pollution during their largely unregulated activities, the company says it makes the cleanest and most efficient use possible of the plastic for new bottles. [Ibid]

“Environmental activists said they would wait to see whether the devices were energy intensive and waste-producing before passing judgment. "Using better technology for recycling is a good thing, generally speaking," said Feng Yongfeng of the Green Beagle NGO. "But bottle recycling is not an urgent problem in China. We already have a mature system for that. Our real need is to complete a comprehensive recycling system.” [Ibid]

Disposable Chopsticks in China

Most disposable chopsticks 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.

Banning Plastic Bags in China

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Farmer using nightsoil
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 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.

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 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.

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 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.

Human Fertilizer in China

Nothing is wasted in China: human waste is collected from family outhouses and used as fertilizer. Outhouses in rural China are often placed near the pig sties so waste can 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 is common sight throughout China.

Urine is collected in 65-gallon drums and used for medicine and fertilizer. Theroux saw a sign over a urinal at a public restroom that read "We would like good quality urine, so please do not put anything in — no spitting, no paper, no cigarette butts."

It is estimated that the citizens of Shanghai produce over 10,000 tons of human shit everyday and much of it gathered up at night, put in barrels, transported to fields around the city, and scooped out as fertilizer. Until the early 2000s, human waste was moved in Shanghai by boats poled along the city's shallow canals and streams by women. In 2001, 4,700 tons of feces and 19,000 tons of trash traveled to processing stations and landfills by the poled boat. These boats however recently have been replaced by mechanized vessels which cover their cargo with blue traps.

The women who poled the boats began their tasks at 4:00am as human waste picked up from neighborhoods was delivered by truck and distributed on the boats in construction hats tied to bamboo poles. Loading was usually finished around 7:00am. The process of poling the boats was slow and difficult. Sometimes the women had to jump ashore to pull the boats with ropes tied around their bodies. Some women traveled 18 miles a day over a period of 15 hours. These days many farmers have switched to nitrogen and phosphorous fertilizer, whose run off can cause water pollution.

High Tech Waste in China

20080317-recycling pachinko machines, Kyodo, env news.jpg
Recycling Japanese pachinko machines

China is the world’s primary destination for high-tech trash. Millions of computers, cell phones and other electronic products are shipped off to China, where they are taken apart and their recyclable materials are extracted. Workers employed by local entrepreneurs work around the clock smashing the devices and components, taking out bits of copper and bronze and other metals. The process is harmful to the environment and to workers, who usually work without protective gear and are exposed to harmful chemicals and heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, mercury, barium, and beryllium. At places where the high tech trash is processed the same chemicals and heavy metals are found in the environment.

For a time about 90 percent of the high tech waste from the United States is shipped to China. Much of it ends up in villages in Guangdong Province in southern China, where an estimated 100,000 scavengers make their living harvesting materials from electronic products. There is huge recycling area and dump around a cluster of villages called Guiyu, where entire families were involved in dangerous practices like melting circuit boards to extract lead and other metals..

Items dumped in Guiyu include lead-laden glass from cathode-ray tubes, acid-reduced circuit broads and printer toner cartridges. Local entrepreneurs buy the trash and in bulk and employ workers to break it down and extract the valuable materials. The work is dirty and dangerous. Computer components, for example, are roasted over coal fires or treated with acid to extract copper gold and other metals.

The documentary “Exporting Harm” highlights the problem of disposing of computer junk with a particular focus on Guiya. Even though the extraction trade is a shadow of what it once was the practice continues and the damage from it is long lasting. Dioxin levels there are among the highest measured anywhere in the world. The soil is saturated with it. High levels of PBDEs — toxic fire retardants used in electronics — have turned up in the blood of electronic workers there.

China has forbidden the import of electronic and computer scrap since 2000 hasn’t stopped the trade. After the film “Exporting Harm” it expanded the list of forbidden e-waste and began putting more pressure on local governments to enforce the ban.

Taizhou is another major e-waste center. It reached its peak in the e-waste trade in the early 2000s and has been it a state of decline since then as the customs officials in the nearby ports of Ningpo and Haimen have clamped down in e-waste imports. Chris Carroll wrote in National Geographic in 2008: “Today the salvagers operate in the shadows. Inside the open door of a house in a hillside village, a homeowner uses pliers to rip microchips and metal parts off a computer motherboard. A buyer will burn the pieces to recover copper...In the same villager, several men huddle inside a shed, heating circuit boards over a flame to extract metal. In another village a few miles away, a woman stacks bags of circuit boards in her house...Continuing through the hills, I see people tearing apart batteries alternators and high-voltage cable for recycling firms and others hauling aluminum scrap to an aging smelter. But I find no one else working with electronics. In Taizhou, at least the e-waste business seems to be waning.”

Toxic Waste in China

DDT is still made in China and India. China still manufactures large numbers of cheap toxic mercury-based batteries. Most countries produce less harmful alkaline batteries. There are few recycling facilities for batteries.

In July 2006, toxic chlorine gas leaking from a rusting pipe in a chemical factory in Yinchuan, the capital of Ningxia Hui autonomous region, northwest China put 164 people in the hospital.

In March 2005, toxic chlorine gas leaking from a crashed tanker killed 27 people in eastern China and put 300 people in the hospital. The truck was carrying 30 tons of liquified chlorine when one its tires exploded and it rammed a truck. Leaking chlorine gas engulfed several nearby villages.

China, India, Bangladesh and Vietnam have toxic waste import bans.

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 December 2021

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