Glittering skyscrapers and gleaming sports cars often stand as symbols of growth here in the past 35 years. But the mountains of garbage it has built along the way are equally potent pictures of the consumer culture that has flourished in China, and the ugly legacy it continues to create.
The country's cities and rural areas have come "under siege" from a deluge of trash that grows larger every year, Chinese researchers warn in a new report that underscores the size of the task the country faces in managing the mess of its breakneck development.
Polluted air and water have drawn much attention to China's environmental problems in recent years, but its garbage has also become one of the key obstacles to its sustainable development, the researchers from Renmin University of China and the National Development Strategy Research Institute said.
China now produces, on average, 1.12 kilograms per person per day of residential waste, nearly 10 per cent more than the average in Ontario, even though China's GDP per capita is more than six times lower. (The figures may understate the garbage problem since they exclude recyclables.) The trashiest Chinese municipality – coal-rich Hegang on the northeastern border with Russia – tosses out 3.2 kilograms per person each day.
China's problem is that despite pledges to burn more trash, spend more money and take better care of its mountainous landfills, it has done little to attack the roots of the garbage challenge. In some other countries, cities put a price on bags of garbage and force the sorting out of kitchen wastes and recyclables – measures that can significantly reduce waste. Many chinese cities just dump everything together.
"On the mainland, I found no city that has decided to separate its waste," said Song Guojun, the Renmin University professor of environmental economics who authored the new report. Even in cities that have launched trial attempts, little has changed.
"We are not doing anything," he said. "There is no progress."
In 2012, the last year for which there are numbers, China created 171 million tonnes of trash.
Prof. Song contrasted mainland China with Taiwan, which a decade ago mandated home waste-sorting and forced residents to buy bags for garbage. The change prompted a nearly 40 per cent fall in garbage output, and a doubling in recycling. Taipei now produces 0.37 kilograms of waste per person per day.
"We can do that," Prof. Song said. The obstacle is political. "We need a decision among higher officials, or perhaps the central government," to effect that kind of change, he added. Part of it will involve changing incentives. Beijing, for example, charges residents only a fraction of what it costs to actually handle all of the city's waste, meaning it effectively subsidizes trash.
Trash takes up space and that's a major issue for China, which is already starved for land. Garbage occupies areas that could otherwise be used for agriculture and it's unsightly. Chinese photographer Wang Jiuliang has documented some 500 trash sites that encircle Beijing; he has called them the city's "Seventh Ring Road."
To address that problem, Beijing has announced plans to build new incinerators, and the authorities have said their goal is to burn or compost 70 per cent of trash this year. But across China, plans to build incinerators have been met with fierce local opposition, particularly since many Chinese installations use old technology that make them large emitters of pollutants like dioxins.
For China, trash is part of the smelly hangover of its economic good times. Its cities have built roads, but have lagged on erecting waste water treatment plants and garbage processing centres. "Cities' efforts have solved some problems, but new problems are constantly appearing," said He Xiaoxia, founder of Chinese environmental NGO Green Beagle.
Garbage is tricky, too, because dealing with it means major retooling. "You need a whole system to make sure that from the household all the way to the final disposal process, you can handle separated waste," said Ma Jun, one of China's most prominent environmentalists. It hasn't helped that some cities have encouraged garbage sorting, only to have residents discover that the trash all ends up in the same place. "Many residents feel quite discouraged," Mr. Ma said.
The nature of Chinese trash compounds matters. Food makes up 70 per cent of what's tossed (enough to feed 200 million people, Chinese researchers have determined) and presents major headaches. Converting it into animal feed is problematic, since much of the food waste is pork, raising health concerns about feeding it to pigs. Chinese cooking tends to be heavily salted, reducing the effectiveness of food waste as a fertilizer. Food-heavy trash is so wet that it easily drains out of landfills, becoming a toxic sludge that some Chinese have taken to calling "trash soup."
It also messes with the incinerators that China has sought to build.
"If kitchen garbage is mixed with other trash, the heat point is low, which means we have to augment it to combust. At the same time, low-temperature combustion produces more pollutants," said Li Yujun an urban development and environment researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
China, meanwhile, doesn't have the option of getting rid of refuse. "China has no garbage exports because garbage processing in China remains the most economic option," Ms. Li said. "Foreign countries even export their garbage to China."