Mainland must tackle its mountain of rubbish

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 April, 2010, 12:00am

Modern urban living has brought a much higher standard of living to many Chinese on the mainland. But with increased wealth and a blossoming consumer culture come costs, not least in growing piles of garbage. The days are fast ending when the majority of families were rural and poor and found a use for waste they produced; higher standards of living, an urban environment, fancy packaging and an endless array of goods to buy are putting paid to that. As a result, cities have to cope with the mountains of refuse that are piling up. Solutions exist, although each requires communities to work together to be effective.

As we report today, Guangzhou's problems exemplify the issues faced by cities throughout the country. Landfills will run out of space within two years; officials would like to turn to incinerators to deal with the crisis. One is being built, but the two others that are planned have been stopped by protests by middle-class residents who live near the sites. They worry that the value of their land will plummet and health suffer from the toxins they believe will be emitted. The government, fearful that matters will get out of hand as at similar demonstrations elsewhere, has backed off to search for other locations, leaving the garbage problem unresolved.

This middle-class revolt is not surprising - few people anywhere welcome a waste facility on their doorstep, and certainly there are precedents to be sceptical of official assurances of safety. But inaction is no way to deal with so pressing a matter. China already produces more household rubbish than any other nation and with people flocking to cities to better their lives, the volume is increasing at an annual rate of at least 6 per cent.

Few mainland cities are effectively equipped to cope. Local administrations are responsible for most of the garbage collection, but they generally lack the funding and innovation to effectively handle disposal. Recycling programmes are non-existent. With landfills quickly filling up, a garbage crisis is looming.

At the same time, people are wary about how their health might be affected by official decisions about waste disposal. Middle-class communities in cities are not ill-informed; they have seen how the nation's rush to develop has led to environmental degradation on a mammoth scale. They worry, rightly or wrongly, that the emissions from incinerators will cause cancer and other diseases.

Modern incinerators are a part of waste disposal in many other countries. Technology has improved to the point that they produce little pollution. Coupled with recycling programmes and a community conscious of its role in alleviating waste, there are few other better garbage management solutions, at least for now. Such a system is a world removed from what is usually taking place. While environmentally-sound facilities are in operation in some cities, the majority of incinerators produce emissions up to 10 times worse than European standards. Little effort is being made to educate people about the need to recycle.

Effective waste treatment requires high up-front investment and operational costs. But Beijing has not put this high on its list of social priorities. This needs to change. One way to accelerate development is to consider allowing the invisible hand of the market to do much of the work through regulation, subsidies, supervision and recycling programmes. As important, though, is that communities have to also do their part by taking grass-roots responsibility through what they buy and how it is packaged.