Tuesday, November 6, 2012

China and U.S. Waste Strategy: More Similar Than You Think

Most of our readers are already familiar with the state of waste management in China, where officials are literally digging the country out from under a pile of trash. The waste management system has been unable to keep pace with the booming economic development and urban growth that has resulted in The Middle Kingdom’s current problem.

China produced 221 million tons of MSW in 2010, more than 35% of which is untreated and left on street corners or dumped in unsanctioned landfills. The lack of foresight on China’s part means that one of the fastest-growing nations in the world now has to overspend in order to play catch up. The Chinese government has pledged to spend $42 billion over a five-year period on waste management. While it has set aside a goal of doubling its meager 3 percent recycling rate and will also invest in food source separation, the majority of the money will go to building waste-to-energy plants.
Garbage landfill in Changchun, China. Courtesy: MSNBC.

China hopes to increase its waste-to-energy capacity to 35% of all discarded materials by 2015. The country has added 66 incinerators in the last two years and plans to have a total of 600 by 2020.

The United States has always been ahead of the curve in terms of waste management and have been able to avoid many of the problems our fellow superpower is experiencing. Here’s how the U.S. and China’s history of waste management and philosophy differ:

1. Historically, the U.S. developed its consumer-driven culture at a slower pace, allowing our waste management infrastructure to grow along with it.

2. China has previously ignored the waste hierarchy and has effectively been without any sort of established recycling program in place. It has historically been left to poor citizens who rely on salvaging recyclables from the garbage and selling it back to facilities as way of earning a meager living.

By contrast, Baltimore first began curbside recycling in 1874. By 1965, Congress had passed the Solid Waste Disposal Act, which was billed as a national research and development program to assist state and local governments with its disposal programs. Recycling is not mandatory in most of the U.S. and so the state and local governments oversee recycling and waste disposal efforts.

3. The size and quality of landfills vary widely in China. While the best ones are equipped with the technology to control emissions, hundreds more are unsanctioned dumping sites that have sprung up outside of cities and throughout the countryside as a result of economic growth. Without the proper number of public facilities, people began dumping trash anywhere without regard or understanding of the environmental and health consequences.

The U.S. solved this problem with the Federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976, which mandated tighter monitoring of landfills and established a hazardous waste management program.

But before Americans pat themselves on the back, they should consider how their current philosophy of choosing the cheapest method of trash disposal affects them long term.  There has been progress in the development of clean waste-to-energy technologies but landfilling remains the most popular option because of its economical nature. The U.S. has over 1,900 active MSW landfills in the nation, down from nearly 3,000 a decade ago. As these landfills reach maximum capacity, tipping fees rise exponentially, which is why states in the Northeast and California are on the forefront of exploration into alternative methods. Despite these advances, a tough economy and difficult permitting has stalled the implementation of new technologies and municipalities continue to return to standard practices of landfilling – relieving the short term cost burden but heightening the long term damage.

Similarly, China has opted to go with a solution that serves short term needs best. The country settled on mass burn incinerators because it contends that it is the best temporary solution to reducing the massive amounts of trash lying across the landscape and to generating energy to meet its rapidly growing needs. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that after building almost 500 new WTE facilities, China is going to be willing to invest in newer, cleaner technology once it gets ahead of its current problem.

As two of the largest countries in the world in terms of people and economic influence, it is imperative that China and the United States put the good of the environment ahead of the almighty dollar to avoid finding us in a mess similar to the one China is dealing with now somewhere down the road. 

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