Throwback Thursday: What happens to Shanghai's waste?

By Emily Wetzki, August 7, 2014

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Throwback Thursday is when we trawl through the That's archives for a work of dazzling genius written at some point in our past. We then republish it. On a Thursday. With Deputy Editor Monica Liau leaving us at the end of August, this is the Month of Monica...

By Monica Liau and Tongfei Zhang 

The 23 million residents of Shanghai discard over 20,000 tons of trash a day, expecting it to be whisked away, out of sight and out of mind. That’s almost 10 million tons of municipal waste a year, enough to fill 10 Jinmao Towers to the brim. And that's before you even factor in the factories. So where does it all go? We went dumpster diving to find out.

Municipal services

Landfills

Process 10,850 tons of trash/day

There are four sanitary landfills that dot the outskirts of Shanghai. The biggest in the city (and China) is the Laogang landfill in Nanhui District. Located 60 km from downtown and covering 360 hectares of land, it requires a complicated network of technology, machinery and constant maintenance to prevent toxins from leaching into the water, escaping into the air and – at the very least – offending our noses.

This 22-year-old receptacle gets 8-10,000 tons of waste from 11 of Shanghai’s districts dumped into it every day, twice its original daily intake estimates. Eventually, it will hold 34 million tons of waste in its bowels. As if it weren’t big enough already, there are plans to expand the mega-dump so it’ll be able to accept an extra 5,000 tons/day.

But it’s not all bury and good-bye. French-based company Veolia Green Technology partnered up with the landfill to build 12 electricity-generating turbines that feed off of the methane gases let off as it all decomposes. That means that those stinky socks you threw out might now be helping to power 61,000 Shanghai households a year.

Incinerators

Process 2,500 tons of trash/day

While trash-burning facilities can conjure up horrific images of toxic air-bound chemicals floating about the city, frying our waste to a crisp can actually be an efficient way to reduce waste mass by 85-95 percent while increasing the generation of electricity. If done right (i.e. emissions tightly controlled with state-of-the-art smoke-stack scrubbers, etc.) incinerators actually release fewer carbon emissions than landfills.

In addition to environmental concerns, Shanghai also faces the problem of trash that doesn’t burn efficiently because it has either not been separated correctly or the material with excellent energy output (like paper, cardboard and scrap wood) is taken by the private sector (see The missing 4,150 tons). Jiangqiao Municipal Solid Waste, one of the smaller incinerators in Puxi, still makes enough electricity to power around 78,000 households a year. While this number doesn’t take a lot of pressure off the grid (incinerators tend to produce 1-3 percent of total city electricity) it’s a start.

To power even more households, the worlds largest incinerator is slated to be constructed right next to the Laogang Landfill, with the planned ability to process 3,000 tons of trash a day (usually incinerators process 1,000/1,500 tons per day.) This mean, mega-machine should come on line by June 2013.

Compost

Processes 2,500 tons of trash/day

In a less spectacular but just as important disposal method, Shanghai has three composting plants where wet garbage (food, tobacco, yard waste and wood) gets sorted, fermented for 33 days and turned into dirt or fertilizers. The Qingpu Municipal Solid Waste Composting project composts about 145,026 tons of organic waste a year with a goal of selling 41,616 tons of the compost back into the local fertilizer market. We’re not sure where the rest will come to rest.

Composting is again tricky as our organic waste is mixed in with a lot of other inorganic substances, making it hard to produce a healthy mix suitable for farms. Even when they get it right, farmers see compost created from other people’s trash as potentially of poorer quality compared to traditional fertilizers, which makes them reluctant buyers.

However, Shanghai still sees composting plants as a precious way to conserve both land and resources. Currently the city is trying to set up a separation policy (see Future) so that people will divide their wet and soggy bread from their plastic wrap, and is confident in enough in its future to have two more plants planned for construction in the next five years.

The missing 4,150 tons

Compare the current amount of trash these municipal sites are capable of handling versus the amount of trash that’s produced and you end up with about 25 percent of Shanghai’s rubbish unaccounted for. While no one’s sure where all of it disappears to, we do know independent businesses and trash collectors are responsible for much of the mystery.

The people you see digging through wastebaskets and wandering the streets on bicycles piled high with boxes, plastic bottles, scrap metal and the errant washing machine are part of a massive private (read: non government-sanctioned) network. After rounding up their wares, collectors haul their hoard to one of the many private dumping sites around the city to sell to trash collecting depots.

In the morning, a steady streams of bicycles can be seen trickling towards 750 Guilin Lu in Hongqiao District, where one of the bigger private collection agencies resides. Through the gates, you’ll find a cache of trash separated and piled into huge heaps, with mountains of liquor boxes, water bottles, rusty mattress springs and old clothes dominating the landscape. Blue trucks then rush out of the gates, stacked with cardboard and decorated with wind chimes of plastic, destined to companies around Jiangsu and Zhejiang province, who need the goods to fuel their businesses.

The trash collecting center offers RMB1/kg for cardboard boxes, RMB5.4/kg for big plastic bottles. When sold one by one, little bottles go for RMB0.1 and big ones at RMB0.3. One woman, who’s been selling to this site for years, says she makes about RMB100/day after hauling in around 100kg of trash. While not much, it’s still a pay day and encourages the collection to continue.

All this is also one of the reasons recycling is a hard sell in Shanghai. Residents figure other people will go ahead and do it for them, while collectors are happy to capitalize on the rising consumerism (and waste) of Shanghai’s burgeoning middle class.

The Future

Based on Shanghai’s current growth in municipal solid waste, we will produce 29,000 tons of trash per day by 2015. The government’s plan for expansion only allows daily treatment to expand to 27,000 tons/day. Assuming we continue on our predicted course, things could get pretty messy.

The Shanghai municipal government has a plan though: to reduce the amount of solid household waste by 50 percent by the 2015 D-day. If they can do it, they’re in the zone. But it’ll take a lot of habit breaking from the citizens.

In terms of household waste, one of the major things the government are trying to teach is separation of goods. In 2008, the first part of this separation plan was rolled out to about 1,000 different households in the city. People got color coded bins: yellow for glass, orange for hazardous household waste (batteries and pharmaceutical), blue for other recyclables like paper and plastic and green for food.

It is not only good for recycling, but helps composting plants become more efficient. At the time, the city announced this program would cover 60 percent of its residential areas by 2009 and 70 percent by 2010, in the wake of the World Expo. However, the project was not as successful as hoped, with just 20 percent of households actually sorting their trash correctly.

In 2011, the government announced the program would be reinstated, but only got about 475 families to participate, well below their goal of 1,000 families by 2012. Officials and volunteers cited difficulties convincing residents to do the extra work, especially when some reported seeing trash trucks just mix the waste back together.

Shanghai continues to work on its goals though, and last year reported having reduced the volume of household waste by five percent.

Perhaps a simpler first step is to have the city start charging for municipal waste collection, which they’ve already done in cities around the country. The argument being that, since there is currently no charge for trash pick up, there’s a distinct lack of incentive for citizens to improve the situation. As soon as you start charging, especially by volume (as it is in Hangzhou), people become more motivated to change their waster ways.

Special thanks to Elizabeth Balkan, who is a Principal at Emergence Advisors with over 10 years of China experience. She spent a year researching trash trends in the Yangtze River Delta and helped us piece together the story. This article first appeared in the March 2012 edition of That's Shanghai. For more Throwback Thursdays click here.

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