BEIJING – Xu Yinxian, a 58-year-old cleaner dressed in an orange uniform, appears in a residential community near the Fourth North Ring Road in Beijing every morning and afternoon.
He removes garbage from dustbins on which the signs of “recycle” and “not-recycle” are barely legible. Xu rides his tricycle with the waste to a nearby building where Jing Jianchun of the Chaoyang Environmental Sanitation Administration is waiting for him in his truck, ready to set out for Datun, a stopover station in northern Beijing. Jing dumps his vehicle’s garbage at a waste processing facility there, where it is sorted into what is suitable for landfill and what can be recycled.
“It appears the majority of local residents pay no heed to signs indicating where recyclable and non-recyclable waste should go and just throw their refuse in whatever dustbin they like,” Xu said. “The ‘recycle’ and ‘not-recycle’ litter bins make no difference.”
Plastic bottles and pop cans had already been scavenged, so he simply sent the remainder to Jing’s truck.
Xu and Jing are among hundreds of thousands of sanitation employees who work from as early as 5 am until 3 pm every day in Beijing.
“Useful waste will be separated and the remainder is sent to Beijing’s largest landfill site, Asuwei, near Xiaotangshan to the north of Beijing,” said another man surnamed Zhang from the sanitation administration.
Zhang’s trailer is loaded with 20 tons of garbage. The vehicle cost 1 million yuan (S$196,400) and its storage area is watertight.
After one-and-a-half hours, he arrives at Asuwei. Not far from the gate, workers at a garbage sorting station with eight workshops are busy. A 20-meter high hill, several hundred meters long and covered in grass and plastic, is nearby.
“The hill is made up of garbage, and the plastic sheets covering its surface are used to prevent the smell from disseminating,” Zhang said.
Garbage from Zhang’s trailer is loaded on to a conveyer belt for more manual sorting. Anything of no use is dumped in a hole in the hill, where it is partly burned.
China is a country with one of the most challenging problems. Every year 150 million tons of garbage are produced, making up 30.6 percent of the world’s annual total, Beijing-based Global Entrepreneur magazine reported in August.
According to the municipal government, Beijing’s population of approximately 20 million produces nearly 20,000 tons of garbage every day, overburdening its 23 waste treatment plants. The municipal government plans to have 40 plants, including the Asuwei project, by 2015, at a cost of 10 billion yuan.
“The landfill will be full in three years,” said Zhang. “There was a plan to build a garbage incineration plant here but residents strongly protested so it was ditched.”
The authorities in August 2009 revealed a plan to build the $121 million Asuwei garbage incineration plant near Xiaotangshan without having sought public approval. Residents staged a protest when they heard the news in September.
Swedish-based Tetra Pak is the world’s largest packaging company by sales with 30 billion beverage cartons produced in 2009. Yang Bin, vice-president of Tetra Pak China, said the company had thought hard how to deal with used cartons.
She said Tetra Pak China has cooperated with research institutions to develop technology to recycle its cartons.
Yang said the company also works with recycling organizations and paper mills and supported them with free technology and facilities.
“If we have better refuse sorting, less poisonous gases will be produced by burning,” said Yang. “Utilizing the most advanced incinerator is useless if the refuse isn’t sorted.”
Lianhe Dingsheng, a garbage recycling company located in southern Beijing, is one of Tetra Pak’s partners. Its head of operations, Zhang Xuefei said the main challenge they faced was the lack of refuse sorting.
“As long as people sort wet waste from dry waste, we can pick up more cartons and send them to paper mills for re-manufacturing,” Zhang, 28, said.
Dry waste includes paper, glass, tin cans, and cardboard. Wet waste refers to organic waste such as vegetable peel and leftover food.
Fulun Paper Mill in Fuyang, Zhejiang province, is Tetra Pak China’s largest partner. It has collected 2 billion beverage cartons and turned them into 13,500 tons of paper, 4,500 tons of plastic and 1,120 tons of aluminum. The amount of paper produced would require 220,000 trees and the recycling process saves 1.4 million tons of water, 14,000 tons of petroleum, 34,000 tons of bauxite and 6.7 hectares of waste landfill.
Fulun’s production capability is expected to be 100,000 tons by the end of the year from its current 40,000 tons. In consequence, the company is offering rewards to collectors to pick up more beverage cartons. However, despite the increase in financial outlay, the results have not improved much.
“It costs a lot to set up a system for certain types of valuable waste,” Yang said. “We have tried our best to increase the recycling rate by 20 per cent, but a better result is hard to achieve without the entire society playing its part.”
In May, the municipal government issued a paper on the treatment of domestic refuse in which it confirmed the construction and operation of waste landfill and incineration plants and made the sorting of refuse compulsory.
Yang said the government should be more resolute on the issue. “Refuse sorting should not only be pulled, but it should also be pushed,” she said.
She said the public only regarded waste that can be sold as valuable waste. But waste such as empty shampoo bottles is also valuable even though they sell for a low price. Yang argued therefore that the government should introduce compulsory measures to recycle rubbish.
After visiting the urban best practices area at the Shanghai Expo, Yang said the Taipei Case Pavilion demonstrating its garbage recycling system impressed her.
In 1996, when nearly 3,000 tons of garbage was being buried in Taipei every day, the city implemented a strict garbage collection system requiring residents to dispose of their garbage only into garbage trucks which visited residential areas at certain hours every day. No dustbins were provided in these areas.
To reduce and reuse garbage, Taipei implemented a system of charging for every bag of rubbish collected in July 2000. Since then, citizens have been required to dispose of their non-recyclable waste in designated bags sold by the local government. A bag with a capacity of 3.3 liters of waste costs around 3.3 yuan (S$0.65).
Thanks to the new plan, Taipei’s household garbage volume fell 67 per cent from 2000 to 2009 to around 1,000 metric tons a day. Over the same period, the volume of recycled material grew from just 2.4 per cent of total waste to 45 percent.
Yang said the government should more fully educate the public to sort refuse so they know what can be recycled.
Wang Weiping, an expert in waste policy and a consultant to the Beijing government, told People’s Daily that besides sorting refuse, the government should also have vehicles for different types of waste and construct corresponding processing factories and different landfill and burning facilities.
Wang said the current management focus was biased; the government invested much in purchasing garbage vehicles, dustbins and constructing landfill and incineration plants, putting the final stages of refuse administration under high pressure.
“The essential thing is to decrease waste by managing the sorting stage at community level and placing the stress on transporting, processing and re-manufacturing,” Wang said.
He added that refuse sorting had a long way to go; Japan took 15 years to implement refuse sorting and 17 percent people are still not following the rules. Twenty percent of Germans do not separate their rubbish after eight years of government effort.
“Knowledge and action should go hand in hand. Only by this way can the public learn to sort better and better,” said Wang.