23 MAR 2021
In 2015, research led by Jenna Jambeck, a professor at the University of Georgia, identified China as the world’s largest source of plastic waste reaching the ocean – accounting for nearly one-third of the total in 2010. Many Chinese researchers thought that figure too high but had no data to demonstrate it.
In the last decade, the situation has improved significantly, according to research carried out both inside and outside China. The discussion focuses on the proportion of China’s waste that is “mismanaged” – meaning ends up in the environment, instead of being incinerated, properly buried or otherwise safely dealt with. This waste includes plastic which may be carried into the ocean.
In their first paper, Jambeck’s team calculated that, in the year 2010, 76 percent of all of China’s waste had been mismanaged. Then a paper published last year, to which Jambeck contributed, led by Kara Lavender Law, a research professor with the Sea Education Association, put China’s mismanagement rate at 25 percent in the year 2016. That would have made China the fifth largest source of plastic entering the ocean, after Indonesia, India, the US and Thailand.
The real figure is lower still according to an article published in November by Li Daoji, a professor at the State Key Laboratory of Estuarine and Coastal Research at East China Normal University.
The differences reflect differing data and estimates, and more research will be required to clarify the situation. They also serve to highlight the changes China has been making to how it manages waste.
Debate over waste-management data
Jambeck’s and Law’s 2015 and 2020 studies were based on waste output and management data sourced from two different World Bank reports. Law told China Dialogue that the sharp drop in China’s mismanaged waste percentage evident between the two studies may be due to the construction of numerous new incinerator and landfill sites.
Li Daoji thinks the 25 percent proportion Law reached remains too high. His team found a 3 percent to 8 percent proportion, also in the year 2016. Using that range, said Li, and doing the same calculation as Law, would equate to no more than 300,000 tonnes of total mismanaged waste in China’s coastal regions, making China the 15th highest national emitter of plastic to the ocean.
Li’s team based their research on a 2017 statistical yearbook published by the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, as well as on other data including on population densities and per capita waste generation. They found mismanaged waste percentage for cities and county-level cities to be 1 percent and 3.9 percent respectively in 2017 – close to that of the EU and US. In towns and rural townships, which are less developed and populated, the proportion was 12.8 percent and 27 percent, respectively. Li and his team also emphasised the role of the informal recycling system, which sees larger pieces of plastic waste like drinks bottles collected and recycled. This system may not be reflected in the yearbook’s figures, and so the mismanaged proportion may actually be lower for towns and rural townships. “If overseas academics are uncertain about China’s waste management data, the best thing to do would be to come and have a look to see if things are as bad as they think. It is very rare now to see waste littering the streets of China’s major cities,” said Li.
Li thinks clarifying how much waste is reaching the ocean will help establish the effectiveness of China’s plastic waste-handling and whether or not more needs to be done. He told China Dialogue: “We need to know where that plastic is coming from – is it agriculture, industry, homes? And once we know that, we can better target our efforts to reduce it.”
A decade of change
It is indeed becoming less common to see waste littering the streets of China’s cities, while open-air waste dumps are becoming rarer in villages, reflecting improvements in waste handling. These improvements may explain the large differences between the findings of the US researchers and Li Daoji. It seems international statistics are not catching up with rapid changes on the ground.
The Ministry of Housing yearbook shows major improvements in the handling of household waste in cities and county-level cities over the past decade. In 2010, the proportion of mismanaged city waste was nine percent. By 2019, it had fallen to 0.4 percent. In county-level cities the drop was from 39 percent to 1.2 percent over the same period. Data on townships and villages has only been collected since 2015, but show annual improvements.
Chen Liwen, founder of Zero Waste Villages, told China Dialogue that prior to the publication of a guidance document on rural waste management by the Ministry of Housing in 2015 the mismanaged percentage was very high, as there was no requirement for rural waste to be fed into urban waste-handling infrastructure. She used the Zhejiang village of Dongyang as an example: waste either went to a small incinerator or was dumped. What was dumped would be swept into waterways when it rained, eventually ending up in the sea. “If there was a downpour and the river topped the dikes, you’d end up with plastic waste littering both banks. It was awful,” she said. When planting crops, farmers would use plastic panels to ward off insects, or make plastic scarecrows, creating more waste in the environment.
The government guidance on rural waste-handling prompted the provinces to start integrating waste management across urban and rural areas. Waste management became stricter, particularly in rural areas south of the Yangtze. In 2018, two years before waste-sorting became compulsory in major Chinese cities, Dongyang was already sorting waste and had waste collections at designated times and points. The floods of waste previously seen after heavy rain were much diminished, and in some places eliminated. “We think having waste pickups at designated times and places has been very helpful in stopping plastic entering the waterways,” Chen said.
Mao Da, founder of environmental group Toxics Free, thinks there are two forces driving waste management in China: a nationwide environmental “clean-up” underway since 2015, and the integration of villages into urban waste and sanitation systems. The clean-up has included removing visible waste, tackling dirty waterways and increasing the cleanliness of streets. The integration has seen rural areas use services purchased from nearby towns and cities to handle waste. “Rural areas are getting slowly more affluent, more aware of their environment, and that means a natural shift towards better waste management,” Mao Da told China Dialogue.
Some industry insiders aren’t in complete agreement with Kara Lavender Law’s suggestion that new incinerators and landfill sites have helped reduce China’s mismanaged waste ratio. Liu Yonglong, head of ocean waste NGO Rendu Ocean, thinks that inadequate incineration and landfill facilities can lead to some waste being illegally dumped and ultimately ending up in the ocean, but building more such facilities doesn’t automatically lead to better waste management – the whole cycle of waste management needs to improve. Mao Da says the whole process is the key, not just the end destination of the waste. “End-point infrastructure has only a limited role to play in solving waste issues. A certain amount of capacity is necessary to bring waste under control, but more important are better collection systems and waste reduction at source. Also, centralised management of waste doesn’t make it harmless – it may just result in different forms of pollution.” Liu and Mao think overseas academics could expand their understanding of waste (mis)management in China through longer-term observation and more on-the-ground research.
Gao Baiyu is a researcher on the China Dialogue Beijing editorial team. She has a master’s degree in computational journalism from Syracuse University.