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Understanding waste in China
The composition of waste changes with time as a country grows and develops. This is because consumers earn more wealth, and their buying patterns change, leading to different types of things being purchased and eventually disposed of. Waste from poorer families in Beijing, for example, tends to be mainly organic matter (e.g. food-related scraps, some compostable paper), followed by ash and dirt. There is a very small amount of plastic, paper and glass, and rarely some metals items. This is in distinct contrast to that from a wealthier family, which is mainly paper-based waste, organic, plastic, glass and metals. Waste, as you will see, is also influenced by wastes that are imported and by waste that washes up on our shores, or blows into our regions. Waste levels throughout the world are different for different countries, but generally range from just under 1 kg up to more than 2.5 kg of waste generated per person per day. China is at the lower end of the scale with a reported value of about 0.7 kg per person per day in 2002. Waste also tends to grow in amounts over time as a country becomes ‘wealthier’ owing to increasing demands for raw materials and growing consumption by households. An example of 100 years of raw materials growth is shown in the next diagram for the USA from 1900 to 2000. The major types of products are shown, along with strong economic ‘dips’ that tend to demonstrate reductions in materials flows. You might have been somewhat surprised that from about the mid 1940s onward the major component of raw inputs has been crushed stone, sand and gravel. These are, and always have been to some extent, utilised for road-building programmes and other major construction programmes. These commodities in turn create wastes further ‘downstream’, and we would expect that China’s large draw on commodities will also create wastes somewhere in the global system, but mainly in China itself. The USA, for example, generates some 1.9-2.2 kg waste per person per day (Wagner, 2002). The next diagram gives three different scenarios for China’s municipal waste based on three predicted waste levels for the urban population of China. Clearly, this prediction only covers the majority of the population. It would be expected that rural households would also generate waste; although these households may generate more overall, these wastes may be more organic in nature. The three scenarios considered modelled a starting waste value of 0.9 kg per person per day (similar to Slovakia or Poland), rising to a relatively low waste level (1.2 kg), which is similar to that for Japan, an expected waste (1.5 kg) value like Estonia, Sweden, or France and a high waste (1.8 kg) value like that of Luxembourg, Ireland, Cyprus or Denmark. Some of the waste generation and disposal processes are very different from those normally considered in developed countries. These are called brownfield sites. Brownfield landfill sites are landfill sites that are uncontrolled rubbish tips; they have no mechanisms for protecting the environment from the waste tipped into them. They are called ‘brownfield’ as the sites tend to create contaminated soil and water tables when rubbish is continually dumped with no safeguards such as impermeable liners or legislated controls on types and amounts of waste that can be dumped. The liquids leached from the rubbish sites can be very hazardous. Brownfield landfills create serious environmental problems through the contamination of the local soil and water. The sites also give off decomposing gases such as methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Some sites also create food for wildlife which may not be the best nutritional inputs. Consider the cattle that eat plastics, for example; if you lived nearby, you might well decide to give up certain foods. Some experts estimate that there are at least 5000 brownfield landfill sites in China which do not have properly managed systems in place to cope with chemical spills, leachates and escaping gases. But with waste growing by some eight times between 2005 and 2020 there will need to be another new 1400 landfill sites to cope with the supply of waste, based on current solid waste plans (Hoornweg et al., 2005). Many of the current landfill sites also need urgent attention to bring their working practices up to the national sanitary standard and ensure that waste does not leak out of the site. But there are also other, more intensive, waste sites such as that in Guiyi, which recycles electronic waste, or e-waste, and which has been labelled by some as the ‘digital dump’ of the world. Much of this digital rubbish originates not in China but overseas. Guiyu, in China, is a group of four villages lying along the Lianjiang River in the Greater Guangdong Province. An estimated 100,000 people in Guiyu are involved in the e-waste recycling business, mostly from the agrarian regions having migrated there. Recyclers on average make about $1.50 per day dismantling computer and printers, collecting toner, burning copper wires, and using fires and acid baths on circuit boards. Drinking water has been trucked into the province for several years now because some residents claim that the groundwater is foul tasting. Hundreds of trucks flow in and out of the region each day, full of scraps from printers, computers,monitors, television sets and other e-waste. The waste clearly originates from North America, but there is also scrap from Japan, Europe and South Korea. Computer shells and fragments pile up in streets, along riverbeds and in makeshift recycling villages outside of towns. Fires that melt copper wire are likely to emit hazardous gases due to the brominated flame retardants used in insulatingwires. Acid-treated circuit boards lie along the riverbeds, where the groundwater was tested (in 2000) for lead and was found to be 2400 times higher than the recommended drinking water guidelines prescribed by the WHO. Pollution and waste from the electronic wastes, scrap and residues is rampant and the poor are in the main completely unprotected from the impacts. (WMIC report, cited in Hoornweg et al., 2005) Guiyu is not the only environmental hotspot in China due to contamination from waste but it is, like Lugu (see below) , economically motivated. Lugu profits from dumping in the environment freely, and Guiyu profits by letting chemicals seep out of very rudimentary processing plants. Lugu lake is located at the boundary of Yunnan and Sichuan Province, Southeast of China. Rubbish has been dumped in the mountainsides which in turn has polluted the lake. Waste has polluted water supplies and more people have to rely on bottled water in China. But this is an environmentally unsustainable solution because of the plastic waste that is generated. The supply of bottled water also creates a form of conspicuous consumption - that is, consumption which is ‘beyond’ necessity in many cases. This consumption is also mirrored in the West, where we have ample potable water on tap, yet we still drink more and more bottled water, with tremendous waste consequences. There are different motivations for drinking bottled water, but overall the same poor environmental outcomes seem to result.