What Happens When There's Nowhere Left For Trash?

by Bradford Plumer | August 14, 2009

China, it's rapidly becoming clear, has a trash problem. As the country has gotten wealthier, it's become the world's largest producer of household garbage. Packaging, old electronics, newspaper, bottles, plain old junk—all of it's piling up and there's increasingly no place to dump it. As Keith Bradsher reported in The New York Times yesterday, "Beijing officials warned in June that all of the city’s landfills would run out of space within five years."

One remedy is to incinerate the trash, which China has been doing. The incinerators take up less real estate, they can do double duty by generating electricity, and they reduce the amount of planet-warming methane that's emitted by trash decaying in landfills. But even that's no free lunch: Most of China's incinerators are highly toxic, emitting mercury and dioxins, which have been linked to health problems and can waft all the way across the Pacific. Residents in Shanghai and China are starting to demand stricter pollution standards for incinerators, like in Europe. Trouble is, the new generation of incinerators are pricey.

What's fascinating—and slightly ominous—is that Japan has been grappling with this problem for quite awhile. Japan has virtually no space for new landfill sites and so ends up burning nearly 50 million tons of solid garbage each year, leading to dioxin emissions six to seven times higher than in Europe. After sufficient public outcry, the government passed tighter pollution standards in 2002, but businesses started complaining about the costs of waste management. The result? Dumping abroad. Between 2002 and 2004, Japanese waste exports to Thailand rose from 54 tons a year to 350,000, and Japan has been pressuring poorer neighbors like the Philippines to reduce tariffs on hazardous waste. (Needless to say, these countries are often ill-equipped to deal with the trash.)

This may not be an option for emerging countries like China and India. The world is running out of developing countries on which wealthier nations can foist their unwanted trash. After all, for many years, the international dumping ground of choice for toxic waste was... China itself. This whole situation brings to mind a point that Samuel Breidbart and David Schlussel made on the World Policy Blog about how China and India won't necessarily be able to mimic the Western path of getting richer and only then worrying about pollution:

American cities and waterways do appear cleaner—in large part thanks to air and water regulations passed by Congress in the 1970s. But what [this] misses is the underlying economics that have allowed Americans, unable to dump at home, to export their filth. ...

While it is difficult to estimate the quantity of U.S. hazardous waste exports (since data is not kept), insiders in the electronic waste industry, according to the Basel Action Network’s “Exporting Harm” 2002 report, believe that 80 percent of what comes through their doors will be shipped to Asia, and 90 percent of that is destined for China.

Trying to find U.S. waste? Look beyond our borders. India and China, if they try to develop with an outdated polluting model, will find no market for their own trash. Empowering their poor will only work through cleaner growth.

That leaves a couple options. China could keep building cheap, dirty incinerators. If they do that, the World Bank figures global atmospheric levels of dioxins will double. Not good. China could start building cleaner, costlier incinerators—a running battle, that. Alternatively, there's the recycle/reduce/reuse route, which can not only curb the amount of trash created, but can even help incinerators run cleaner. At the very end of his piece, Bradsher gets a Chinese waste engineer to comment on how Chinese feel about recycling: "No one really cares." Yikes. Though it's hard to imagine that attitude lasting forever.

(Flickr photo credit: DooleyPhoto)

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