In China, waste and waste management have attracted national concern. From environmental issues like toxic chemicals in sea water, to issues affecting urban centers – like Beijing’s burdened landfills – waste has become a central part of public discourse. With this in mind, we thought we’d share insights from our past and recent work on waste in Shanghai, and shed light on major changes to waste management in China.
In 2015, China released a new Five-Year Plan. One major focus of this plan was environmental reform, with nearly three sections dedicated to coal plants, carbon emissions, and environmental governance. While each of these focus areas has received serious attention by mainstream media, one aspect of the plan has been largely ignored – waste management.
In particular, the plan suggests a major shift in China’s waste treatment by encouraging cities to replace landfills with more sustainable treatments.
China’s Five-Year Plan doesn’t literally ban landfills or penalize provinces with landfills, but it does encourage “raising rates of incineration,” minimizing water and gas pollution from landfills, and recycling more often.
Some cities, however, have taken these pledges a step further. Beijing, Shenzhen, and Shanghai, among others, have each pledged “zero waste to landfill” by 2020 and have dedicated massive attention to waste reform.
Why have these cities made this commitment?
The amount of waste crowding China’s landfills has grown exponentially over the past ten years. Shanghai, for instance, managed a little over 6.2 million tons of waste in 2005, but now deals with 7.9 million tons – an increase of nearly 30%.
Of these 7.9 million tons, the largest proportion (3 million tons) goes directly to landfill. The rest is either incinerated, composted, or subjected to comprehensive treatment. Only a small percentage undergoes recycling or hazardous waste treatment.
As Shanghai’s volume of waste steadily increases, its landfills become less equipped to manage the load. More strenuous environmental impact assessments also place added pressure on local officials to look for cleaner treatments.
Shanghai’s Five-Year Plan promises new recycling sites in Putuo, Jiefang Island, and Minhang districts, as well as diversion of waste from landfill through “alternative” treatments. These “alternatives” range from landscaping to backfilling, and they focus mostly on reusing construction waste.
Shanghai’s most drastic move, however, involved closing two major landfills. The city’s government only runs five official sites overall and will close the Liming and Changxing centers by the end of 2017.
Shanghai is not alone in China’s landfill closures. In fact, in 2013, Beijing announced that 7 of the city’s 15 landfills would close within two to three years. According to city officials, land was too expensive, too many residents had complained about local eyesores, and the influx of garbage was pushing several landfills over capacity.
Shenzhen, likewise, has reduced four landfills to three during the same timeframe, and could close another by 2020. The city’s Environmental Protection Department is currently investigating the largest landfill regarding pollution concerns.
What Will Replace Landfill Treatment?
With pressure from national- and city-level planning, waste management has had to consider alternatives.
Beijing, Shenzhen, and Shanghai have announced different strategies, but each has common elements: more “alternative” treatments to divert from landfill and into more incinerators.
“Alternative treatments” include paving, landscaping, backfilling, or otherwise repurposing waste for public works projects. If a company wants to renovate its building and tear down tons of brick and sediment, that material could serve another purpose. Under this model, waste management teams sort out useful material, crush it, and mix it with soil for local construction crews.
Shanghai, in particular, has straightforward guidelines for this process. So long as the mixture doesn’t contain hazardous, household, or industrial waste, it can become the foundation for a building, pavement for a new road, or landscaping material for a new park.
In China’s largest cities, incinerators are nothing new. They transform tons of waste into ash, reduce waste to landfill, and in some cases, produce electricity for major segments of the population.
Over the last year, though, Beijing, Shenzhen, and Shanghai have shown new levels of commitment. Shanghai and Beijing released plans for 8 new incinerators, with Shanghai more than doubling its capacity levels. Shenzhen, likewise, announced its development of the world’s largest waste-to-energy plant, which will burn 5,000 tons of waste per day.
These numbers are significant and beg the question: Why focus so much on incinerators? Why are incinerators the ideal replacement for landfills?
First, they require less space. Incinerators need furnaces, boilers, turbines, and generators, but they don’t need constant expansion projects to handle growing waste piles. Their major byproduct is ash, which takes up limited space.
Next, they’re actually profitable. Waste-to-energy burns trash, uses the heat to boil water, then channels steam to power a turbine. The resulting electricity is a growing alternative source of energy that can power local households and businesses.
Are Alternatives to Landfills More Effective?
Both of these treatments have potential, but if executed poorly, could cause more damage than landfills already do.
Alternative treatments like backfilling and landscaping work well so long as construction crews remove hazardous, household, and industrial waste from construction waste. Crews can, however, leave behind plastics and hazards like PVC piping, light bulbs, and lead paint. This material leaches chemicals into the soil and groundwater, impacting large urban populations.
Likewise, landfills have their fair share of chemical and toxic byproducts: dioxins, toxic ash, and waste water. Dioxins are highly toxic pollutants that PVC products (plastics) emit when they burn. They can have a far reaching impact, and inhalation of the toxins can cause long-term health effects, such as cancer and respiratory issues.
Toxic ash, which can be divided into “bottom” ash and “fly” ash, also has a negative impact. Bottom ash accumulates in the incinerator’s furnace and contains mostly nonhazardous material, but fly ash, which accumulates in incinerator piping and stacks, often includes harmful toxins.
After burning waste, waste managers must consider how to dispose of ash. For now, many sites dump the ash into regular landfills or landfill space designated for incinerator disposal. In either case, this material is much more harmful than standard household waste. It has direct contact with soil, and can contaminate both the surrounding area and the underlying water supply.
Some questions going forward
- How can sustainable businesses turn both alternative waste management methods into opportunities?
- How can regulators and businesses smooth the transition from landfill dependence to alternative treatment?
This article was written by Alison Schonberg, Research Analyst at Collective Responsibility.