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Longstanding Mechanisms Required for Urban Garbage Disposal


By Zhou Hongchun, Research Department of Social Development of DRC

Research Report No 182, 2010

Garbage is an issue that concerns people's livelihood and impacts people's living environment and physical health, instead of an issue that only concerns the selection of disposal methods. As some city managers are not well-prepared for garbage disposal and fail to properly handle legitimate public outcries for environmental protection, some mass incidents have occurred in some places. Accordingly, this issue should receive high attention and be prevented from evolving into a social destabilizing factor.

I. Improper Urban Garbage Disposal Can Become Major Social Problem

Recently, the issue of urban garbage in China has been mainly expressed in the following aspects.

1. Garbage Production Outpaces Treatment Facility Construction

Urban garbage production grows rapidly as China expedites urbanization. Garbage production, which stood at about 30 million tons in 1981, rose to 154 million tons in 2008, at an annual growth rate of 5%~6%. The 154-million-ton garbage production covered only 655 cities. If more than 2,000 county cities and 20,000 central towns were included, garbage production would total more than 250 million tons. Statistics indicate that by the end of 2008, garbage stockpile nationwide had exceeded 7 billion tons and occupied more than 0.8 million mu of land. How to handle garbage has become a "headache" to some city managers.

2. Tangible Drawbacks Arising from Simple Garbage Collection and Suburban Stockpiling

In face of rapid urban garbage growth, the initial method employed by some cities was to collect garbage and dump it in the open air in suburban areas. This method has shown undeniable drawbacks. Some cities are now "garbage-besieged", which spoils city looks, pollutes environment and harms human health. Some cities have stockpiled garbage in ravines or near water sources. As a result, river water, groundwater and other water sources are seriously polluted, which becomes a major hidden danger to human health. When garbage is stockpiled in the open air, the organic matters decompose, breed insects and become hotbeds for epidemic outburst and spread. The areas adjacent to large landfills in some cities, noted for high incidence of diseases, have triggered repeated environmental disputes. Therefore, garbage has become a hot social issue.

3. Lack of Rational Planning and Necessary Supervision Aggravates Garbage Problem

Some cities have been slow in land planning and used the land reserved for garbage disposal for other purposes without permission. They used the land to construct residential estates or factories. As a result, garbage-disposal grounds become closer and closer to residential areas. In some cities, their land reserved for garbage dumping has been grossly inadequate. Some cities even have no place now to dump garbage. Some city managers focus on "perceivable and touchable" vanity projects and neglect the construction of facilities for garbage treatment and environmental protection. Some cities have seen their garbage incineration plant plans being boycotted by the general public because they have failed to make effective communication with local residents. As garbage treatment expenses have to be borne mainly by city governments, some small and medium-sized cities have commissioned garbage treatment to enterprises through bidding and other channels and failed to exercise necessary supervision and regulation over built landfills and incineration plants. Accordingly, the existence and operation of these facilities have affected the life and physical health of nearby residents, though in varying degrees.

4. Garbage Disposal Triggers Mass Incidents in Some Places

With the rapid development of the Chinese economy and the continuous improvement of the people's living standard, the general public becomes more conscious about environment and health. They refuse to live any more in an environment fraught with garbage smell and health risks, and begin to take actions to protect their environmental rights and interests. In particular, the growing public resentments in the areas around garbage treatment facilities often evolve into mass incidents. In 2009, residents in Beijing, Guangzhou, Jiangsu and other places either staged sit-ins in garbage treatment grounds, or made "strolls" in the related grounds, or lodged complaints to municipal governments. The general public, which now has a rising environmental awareness, begins to take advantage of Internet convenience to voice their hope that they do not want garbage treatment grounds built in their "backyard" to affect their normal life and clean living environment. These demands are reasonable, and consistent with the human-oriented scientific approach to development introduced by the central authorities. However, in dealing with mass incidents, a few city managers, who are incompetent in solving garbage problems and lack ability to deal with mass incidents in the information age, regard these normal environmental demands as trouble making. Instead of communicating with these people, they take inappropriate measures, only to sharpen the contradiction between residents and regional governments. In a sense, solving garbage problems is also a test of the ruling capacity of governments in the information age.

II. China's Garbage Disposal Is More Complex than in Developed Countries

China's urban garbage issue is more difficult to handle than in developed countries. The difficulty is manifested mainly in the following aspects.

1. China Is Not Well-Prepared to Deal with Rapid Urban Garbage Growth

In foreign countries, the subjects of urban garbage disposal are clearly defined and the plans are highly mandatory. As garbage production and disposal is a regional matter, the environmental department of foreign municipal authorities is in charge of urban garbage disposal. While municipal governments support garbage disposal and wastes recycling and utilization, they leave the operation of garbage treatment facilities to the market. Compared with developed countries which are in the post-industrial stage, China is in the stage of rapid industrialization and urbanization, with more than 10 million peasants becoming urban residents each year. Garbage production not only grows fast, but also concentrates in cities. Compared with rapid urbanization, advance preparations such as management systems and garbage treatment plans are quite inadequate. Due to the constraint of natural conditions, many cities do not have sufficient grounds for garbage land-filling. And driven by economic interests, some places use reserved landfill grounds for real estate development and industrial construction. "The next government pays no attention to the decisions made by the previous government." Government departments scramble for anything lucrative and pass the buck to each other when something is not lucrative. As city sanitary department is in charge of garbage treatment, the environmental department finds it difficult to enforce laws on garbage pollution. As a result, garbage treatment grounds become closer and closer to residential areas and the accumulated garbage treatment and other environmental problems burst out all of a sudden.

2. No Suitable Solutions Are Available to Urban Garbage with Complex Components

Although the components of foreign garbage are relatively stable and garbage sorting and recycling receive high attention, composting, land-filling and incineration remain the main treatment methods. A study of the European Environment Agency indicates that in 2007, European countries treated 42% of their garbage by land-filling, 20% by recycling and 17% by composting. Japan treated half of its garbage by incineration and another half by land-filling in the mid-1970s and mainly by incineration at the end of the 20th century. China is a country with a huge population size and a high population density, where coal remains a household fuel in most cities. As garbage components are complex, sorting and recycling cannot solve all the problems. Due to the living habits of the Chinese people and the level of China's economic development, many garbage components cannot be recycled. And this varies greatly from region to region. For example, the garbage in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and other large cities contains a higher ratio of recyclable components and recycling can reduce the amount of garbage that should be treated. On the other hand, the garbage of small and medium-sized cities contains a higher ratio of coal ashes and kitchen refuse. Overall, more than 70% garbage in China cannot be recycled. For this reason, no single solution can solve different garbage problems in different regions. Solutions should take local conditions into account.


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