16.11.2018 in Analysis
China Waste Composition


According to numerous ecologist estimates and projections, environmental problems in China reached their catastrophic proportions. Despite this background, the country has economically promising formation and business development for household and industrial waste. The paper will discuss how the garbage in China can be turned into a mountain of gold.

The Amount of Waste Disposed

Every citizen in China produces 0.5 tons of municipal solid waste annually. Back in 1980s, such waste was taken from residential areas to landfills on tractors, dumped into pits and buried. Methane, which was formed by the decomposition of the wastes, was used for the needs of utilities. China produces more than 250 million tons of solid waste per year, which is an average of 0.3 kg per person per day. Such an amount corresponds to 33% of the debris on the planet. Every Chinese litter twice less than a US citizen, but the gap in favor of the latter presents 4% annually.

The lack of space for landfills is a pressing problem in China: up to 85% of the waste is in landfills. In the future, the country’s leadership is going to burn up to 30% of all solid waste. Moreover, it will initiate a program to develop recycling factories throughout China. This information has already attracted a number of large companies: Hera (Italy), Interseroh (Germany), Hitachi (Japan), Covabta (USA). The investments of the world’s largest players in the introduction of advanced foreign utilization technology in China could reach up to $10 billion.

Approximately 85% of China’s 7 billion tons of waste is in the countryside dumps that are unlicensed. Most of them have only a thin plastic lining beneath them or anything. Precipitation causes bacteria, ammonia and heavy metals penetrate into the soil, ground water, and drinking water supply systems. As a result of waste decomposition, carbon dioxide and methane are produced. If the system of garbage collection does not improve, some say that the Chinese people may experience health problems. Increasing garbage incineration is considered as a way for the country to solve this issue.

In Beijing, taking the waste out in the street means taking all the garbage one has – eggshells, cabbage leaves, uneaten noodles, paper – and bringing it to the designated spot. A few times a day, a garbage collector takes all this waste in his cart. Before it is collected, a garbage pile can be more than a meter in height, and rather fetid. Once a year, district committee members visit every apartment and collect the $4 fee per household for the service. The scheme has worked for decades, probably even centuries. About one-third of China’s waste is composted or recycled.

More than 7 billion tons of industrial waste occupy a territory exceeding 3 billion square meters. A ring of landfills surrounds two-thirds of Chinese cities. The main source of secondary pollution of groundwater and air are the production and consumption waste pollution. The most prominent example is the stench emanating from the landfill surrounding rural areas, which have been gathered from the dregs of 25% of the cities.

According to the five-year plan regarding the construction of sewage treatment plants, which came into effect in 2011, the rate of removal of debris from the Chinese cities will increase by 90%, while in rural areas, by 70% by 2015. Estimated capacity for incineration is above 35%. In order to achieve these goals, the Chinese government has launched a policy of incentives for companies that produce electricity from recycled materials. More loyal taxation, subsidies and raises in prices for electricity and heat produced this way have greatly contributed the profitability, especially of waste treatment plants.

A positive trend can be seen in the example of the enterprises that produce energy from recycled materials in regard to the production and consumption waste. Experts predict that by 2015, the daily capacity of municipal solid waste incineration will be 870,000 tons.


WTE Technologies Used in China

Technology to convert waste to energy (Waste-to-Energy (WTE) technologies) offer profitable short-term solutions for the production of electricity, the implementation of plans of renewable energy, and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in the US and other countries. They also provide opportunities for the improvement of the resource management, increase energy security, enhance quality of the environment, and maintain conservation programs around the world.

Among a number of available technologies for fuel and energy transformation, incineration of municipal solid waste and obtaining fuel in boilers is commercially reasonable and widely used throughout the world, as well as the combustion system. It releases gases formed due to both the uncontrolled anaerobic decomposition of waste buried in the garbage landfill and the controlled treatment of organic materials in specially constructed installations. Advanced thermal conversion technologies, such as pyrolysis and gasification, which convert municipal solid waste into the universal fuel suitable for power generation, are increasingly used, although they have not been tested yet.

Modern WTE-technologies are widely recognized by government agencies as an effective means of resource management and option for renewable-energy production. When they are part of the Reduce-Reuse-Recycle program, there will be no need for the composting of municipal solid waste. Environmentally sound technologies provide a means for recovering energy from residual waste, while reducing the volume of material that has to be buried by around 90%. In landfills, agricultural facilities and sewage treatment plants, they produce useful energy, while significantly reducing the emission of methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.

At present, Chinese cities continue to use the traditional methods of waste disposal in landfills and composting. However, such methods are gradually disappearing, which contributes greatly to the growing number of waste treatment plants. Incineration, which should be performed in most ecological and economically viable way is still employed to get rid of debris while obtaining electricity.

Nowadays, the production of waste transport and disposal by incineration are the competing spheres of Chinese business. Celestial Empire is confidently entering the golden age of the heat and light production from the debris. The number of incineration plants is growing, and major cities are vying for the right to open them.

Economists predict the rapid development of “garbage” power plants. On the one hand, the enterprises do not have sufficient equipment and thus opportunities to fully cope with the ever increasing amount of waste. On the other hand, the clear plan for the development of such power plants attracts a lot of investment.

Solid waste combustion and electricity production technologies are being improved with the updated equipment. By 2020, the profit from waste treatment plants is expected to increase by seven times. One of the solutions for the garbage problem, which Western countries willingly use, is to export household waste to the third world countries. Today, the giant China became the world’s dumping ground. According to unofficial data, 80% of waste export from developed countries settles in Asia; 90% of it ends up in China. Much of this waste, which contains more than 300 hazardous substances and materials, is sorted and processed at small factories that do not have any sewage treatment plants. In 2006, the income of the People’s Republic of China for waste recycling made $177.4 billion. However, the damage caused to the environment is not rated.

At present, China’s total annual hazardous waste amounts to about 11 million tons, 10 million of which come from the industrial production; medical waste reaches 650 thousand tons; waste of radioactive material comes to 115,300 tons. Therefore, from 1996 to 2004, 26.4 million tons of hazardous waste were buried without any treatment or proper disposal. With regard to China, the annual generation of waste surpassed 1 billion tons, which is 5 times more than the annual volume of solid waste. Consequently, the PRC clearly defines three categories of waste: municipal, industrial and hazardous waste. The municipal waste includes household, institutional, commercial, untreated industrial waste as well as street sweepings. Very often, the waste from construction or demolition of dilapidated houses is also included into the total amount of solid waste.

The analysis shows that within the waste management system, Chinese cities are exposed to two levels of collection, sorting and recycling: formal and informal. The formal sector employs more than 1.3 million staff, whose work is officially paid by the city authorities and executives. Their primary tasks involve the collection and transportation of waste, while sorting and selling of secondary raw materials are only the beginning of the initiative.

The level of recycling in China is lower than in other developing countries. Development of China’s recycling system is based on the use of the internal market for recycling that is seriously undermined by the understated prices for the disposal of waste imported from developed countries, which keep their land clean and do not spend much money on landfill.

Waste Electronic technology is another good example of detriment that China experiences providing its territory for the deposit of waste. For example, in 2001, 40 million outdated computers were thrown to the US landfills; 80% these devices were sent for recycling to China at a price 10 times lower than it costs in the United States. Study of the recycling implementation and conditions shows that the level of hazardous chemical elements produced during the process is much higher than the permissible limits both in Chinese and foreign enterprises.

According to the integrated waste management concept in China, incineration plays a special role in the system of sanitary cleaning of large cities. Given the specificity of the morphological composition of municipal solid waste in Chinese cities, their calorific value is 800-1100 kcal per kg; so, the incinerator has to be used as the additive to fossil fuels. Moreover, along with the construction of modern waste incinerators in the country, there are numerous small incineration enterprises that employ manual labor for waste backfilling and completely lack any gas treatment devices.

The Amount of Recycled Garbage

Food consumption in China is growing by 10.8% annually. It is expected that by 2016, the cost of packaged food will reach $200 billion. Part of that money is the potential revenue from recycling of packaging cardboard, plastic, glass, and fabric.

In case of incinerators, the state of affairs is constantly improving. In 2011, China burned about 17% of the total waste produced; if the state program for the construction and commissioning of waste incineration plants has been completed successfully, this proportion will increase to 35% by 2015. For this purpose, Chinese government has allocated 25 billion US dollars. However, not everything is as good as it seems. Waste incineration should have a certain caloric content, that is, the amount of energy that is to be produced from the incineration of 1 kg of garbage. The minimum allowable calorie capacity of garbage, when viewed from the standpoint of economic efficiency, equals 6 MJ/kg, while in China it is only 5 MJ/kg.

Construction of incineration plants is needed, especially in the context of waste import. However, China will need some way to solve the problem of increasing its caloric content; this may induce more thorough sorting and the maximum disposal of organic waste and construction debris.

Analysts say that the Chinese market has undergone tremendous processing downturn; revenues from this kind of activity fell to $107.5 billion in 2012, and to $102.8 billion in 2013. This is not only due to the decrease in the price per ton of processed waste, but also because of the overall situation in China this year. For the first time in 15 years, the growth of the second largest economy in the world has not reached its performance level; the decline is observed in many areas. The drop in the real estate market this year has reached 20%, as oppose to the 4% fall in waste processing market, which is not too serious. Moreover, the market is expected to reach $156 billion level in 2018 with a compound annual growth rate of 8.7%, compared to the five-year period 2013-2018.

Processing of ferrous metals, as a segment of the market, has almost reached $31.6 billion in 2013, and it is expected to grow to $48.1 billion in 2018 with a CAGR of 8.8%. Non-ferrous metal processing market has reached $35 billion in 2013, and is projected to rise to $54.1 billion in 2018, reaching an average annual growth rate of 9.1%, compared with the same five-year period.

Reduction Programs of the Government

Rapid economic growth and industrial development led to the growth of hazardous waste in China on a regular basis. In 2005, hazardous waste amounted to 11.62 million tons, accounting for 1.1% of the total industrial solid waste. 43.4% of it were recycled; 33%, retained; 23% were sent for disposal to landfill; 0.6% were discharged without pollution control. In late 2004, there were 177 officially registered centers for waste management, which generated 39% of hazardous waste, mainly in south-west China. In addition, 740,000 tons of medical waste were produced during the year, only 10% of which were intelligently managed. Hazardous household waste management is conducted as part of municipal solid waste management. Control over them is a significant problem within the general operating system management.

In Shanghai, for example, a system of governance with special IC-card is used, allowing the device to constantly monitor and analyze the working process and increase efficiency. Furthermore, China is developing a law on the establishment of so-called “circular economy” to provide a legal basis for their national sustainable development strategies. With a population of more than 1.3 billion people and sustained economic growth, China has become one of the fastest growing markets in the world of recycling.

Chinese processors are becoming more interested in the international aspects of processing, increasing the number of conferences and exhibitions, where there is a discussion on import and export of scrap aluminum, scrap copper, scrap iron and steel, paper and plastic waste. Moreover, they develop enterprises for the production of processing equipment, such as crushers for plastic presses for waste sorting lines. One of the programs used by the government is the regulation on use of the disposable chopsticks. Most of them are made of bamboo or furniture production waste. These materials are processed into sticks with the help of cutting machine. Chopsticks are both exported and used locally. 119,413 tons of wooden sticks were exported in the year 2006, mainly to Japan.

The Chinese strive to reduce the use of disposable bamboo chopsticks by promoting reusable plastic sticks in restaurants. In order to promote plastic sticks, government imposed a 5 percent tax on wooden sticks. Nevertheless, customers are resisting the use of plastic rods, which are considered by them as unhygienic. The restaurant staff also does not like them. Disposable wooden chopsticks are only a third of one percent for a couple, and do not require cleaning.

Another initiative of Chinese government is discouraging the use of plastic bags. In January 2008, they prohibited the shops from issuing free plastic bags, and requested that customers used cloth bags and baskets to reduce environmental pollution. The phenomenon of “white pollution” – a reference to the color of the plastic bags given in most shops – is a topical issue in many parts of the country. The ban is a problem for the owners of small shops, which sell items by weight, such as sugar, eggs, peanuts and rice, and give the goods to buyers in thin plastic bags. The goal of the Chinese government is to decrease the use of plastic bags by two-thirds, saving the equal of 30,000 oil barrels per day.


Nowadays, the collection of garbage in the country is big business. In Shanghai alone, there are tens of thousands of garbage reception points, which provide permanent jobs for about 2.5 million garbage collectors. The data also infers that the income of an average garbage collector is about 20-30% higher than that of the farmer.

Despite an unprecedented leap in economic development, urbanization and radical lifestyle change, China is faced with the problem of waste disposal, the number of which continues to grow steadily, thus polluting the environment. For most people transportation of urban production waste and disposal of garbage have become top priorities that require immediate action. Moreover, China is the world leader in the number of household waste.

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