A city can be defined as a complex structure, in which, in order to guarantee its proper functioning, all its parts have to function thanks to a planned coordination. One of the primary issues every city must face is its waste processing system. The latter includes a good and organized government’s planning which has to guarantee a functioning collection system, proper stations where to gather and store the urban waste, and an efficient sorting system. This essay will focus on the city of Beijing and the issue of its waste management. Starting from the beginning of China’s fast economic growth, the government faced some real obstacles in organizing the waste disposal of the city. As a matter of fact, after the end of Mao’s era and with the establishment of Deng Xiaoping’s government, China started to move to a market-oriented economy. This fast transformation, the opening of China to the rest of the world, the growth of cities to metropolis and the increase in the quality of living standards, led to a fast process of urbanization. All these factors, together with the fast demographic growth, led to an increase of waste.
I was driven to investigate this topic after watching Wang Jiuliang’s documentaries “Beijing besieged by waste” (2001) and “Plastic China” (2016). These two documentaries focus on the problem of waste management in the city of Beijing and the consequences that this issue has on the environment and society.
The first one focuses on the so-called 7th ring road that the director found out during his research. This ring is characterized by a series of illegal landfills that surround the city of Beijing by forming a new ring. The second one, instead, pays more attention to the issue of waste exports to China and the consequences that the global trade in recyclables has on this country. As a matter of fact China started to import the trash that was coming from the West for economic interests. This caused a considerable increase of waste. Although there is a subtle difference between the two, they both deal with the set of problems concerning China’s waste management system. In this essay I will focus in particular on the city of Beijing and the relation with its urban structure. Beijing’s impressive economic growth and the import of foreign trade led to an uncontrolled waste management and to the increase of illegal landfills. As Wang Jiuliang points out, this not only had several consequences on the environment, but also on the society itself. However this emergency is the result of a series of factors: China’s economic boom, its fast demographic growth, consumerism, the expansion of the city, the negligence of the government with the consequent lack of regulations and controls and the incapacity of people to sort rubbish properly.
In order to analyze the topic, first it’s important to understand Beijing’s urban structure. The city is characterized by six rings. These rings are a network of connected roads which main goal is to connect the different areas of the city in order to facilitate the movement of people, reduce the traffic volume in the main centre and connect the different areas of the city. As a matter of fact, “To support the city’s planned spatial structure, the concept of a ring and radial road system was created in the 1950s and strengthened in the 1982 and 1993 comprehensive plans. The system was considered to be an ideal transportation model to support the planned urban pattern. The 4th ring road would be the edge of the city center; the 5th ring road would link the 10 scattered districts; and the 6th ring road was designed as the intercity highway to connect some of the 14 satellite towns. The radial highways were planned to provide rapid access between the ring roads and to create traffic corridors between Beijing and other cities”.
This clarification about the city structure is meant to introduce another element which emerged as a consequence of Beijing’s fast growth. The photographer and filmmaker Wang Jiuliang started his investigation of waste disposal in 2008 and he found out the presence of a 7th ring, made of 11 large-scale refuse landfills. He illustrated this new geography by pointing on a Google map the presence of these dumping sites with a yellow dot. His project’s goal was to highlight the economic interests behind the landfills surrounding Beijing, which became a business for many scavengers and families, and how they are shaping the Chinese society itself. This ring is characterized by a series of open and illegal landfills. They are a result of the Beijing’s fast-growth and the consequences that the import of waste from the West had on China. These landfills not only have an impact on the environment, but also on the social structure of the city and its outskirts areas. As a matter of fact they became a lucrative business for many families since they were not regulated by Beijing’s authorities. The documentary by Wang Jiuliang, “Plastic China” (2016), investigates this situation. He focuses his attention on the life of a family which saw the recycling business as a form of employment and sustenance for the whole family. These kinds of family are called junk families, because they live and they raise their children in the garbage. They saw in these places a good source of money and they also helped the government to avoid this issue for many years, due to its excessive cost. As a matter of fact, these unofficial dumps didn’t have to comply with strict regulations, such as leakage control and pollution checks. That is why it became much cheaper and cost-effective to throw the garbage there. When the Chinese society made its transformation from a socialist country to a market-oriented one, over-consumption became an important issue.
The article “The rise and fall of a “waste city” in the construction of an “urban circular economic system”: The changing landscape of waste in Beijing” by Xin Tong and Dongyan Tao, focuses on this issue and it analyzes the city of Beijing and the emergence the problem of illegal landfills. In particular it focuses on the case of the “waste city” of Dongxiaokou, in the northern part of Beijing. It analyzes the situation of illegal landfills in the outskirts of Beijing and it says that, with the transformation of China from a socialist country to a market-oriented one, “A prevalent spatial phenomenon that occurred along with this structural change was the emergence of waste villages in the urban fringe of many cities in China. The activities in different waste villages varied from open dumping to garbage sorting of various recyclable goods. However, most of the waste villages shared common characteristics, such as the illegal occupation of rural land under the land management system in China and the concentration of migrant workers who made their living by scavenging, sorting, or recycling from urban discards. Such villages became places of tension and conflict in urban waste disposal but also created an ugly space that was host to poverty and misery near the city”. This phenomenon, as explained before, led to the proliferation of informal sites for the management of the city waste. This informal system was the illegal correspondent of the formal one, with a big difference of cost and controls.
As Wang Jiuliang tells in an interview, after the release of his documentary “Beijing besieged by waste”, the title of the movie, at the beginning, was not the latter. The first title was “A photographic investigation of waste pollution around Beijing”. His main goal was to study the issue of pollution in the city of Beijing. However, after he started, he realized that the investigation would have taken more than expected and that the problem was more complicated than he thought. He decided to change the name of the documentary because, after three years, he realized that the only word suitable for the movie was “Besieged”. As he visited more and more landfills around Beijing, he realized that the city was truly besieged by waste and these landfills were modifying the urban structure of the city by creating another ring. As a matter of fact “China’s environmental regulators require a standard landfill to have a lining made of special materials to prevent pollutants from penetrating into the soil. In addition, facilities should be in place to gather harmful gas emissions and isolate garbage from groundwater. But a large number of dumps that are beyond regulators’ control have cropped up around cities. An environmental expert said that without any supervision, the unregulated landfills pose threats to the air, could cause fires, and may even result in explosions. Meanwhile, harmful liquid produced by fermenting garbage pollutes soil and groundwater”. This is why the situation of unregulated landfills became one of the main issues of Beijing, which needs an immediate and fast response from the government.
However, which is the history of waste management in Beijing? How was regulated few years ago? And how did they manage to improve the situation? The article “Municipal solid waste management in Beijing City” outlines a brief history of municipal solid waste in Beijing city. According to it before 1979 the municipal solid waste management was not regulated properly. As a matter of fact it was transported outside the city and dumped in the open air without any restrictions and control. This caused an accumulation of waste which resulted in illegal landfills. Waste disposal was not seen as a problem or an issue to take care of and its management was part of the routine work and under the administration of the Ministry of Public Wealth. Following the demographic growth and the uncontrolled municipal solid waste, the latter started to increase from 1979 to 1994. During this phase, it was the MCC (Ministry of city construction) which was responsible for MSW. In order to find effective solutions to the problem, sanitary landfills were suggested as the major disposable technology. As a consequence, in 1994, the first sanitary landfill was built. However, it was only at the end of 2001 that Beijing Municipal Administration Commission (BMAC) took over the responsibility for MSW management. This represented an important change and a significant innovation. Starting from 2008 MSW management in Beijing has focused on reduction and resource conservation, and incineration and composting started to be seen as a plausible alternatives to sanitary landfills (Zhen-shan, Yang Lei, Qu Xiao-Yan, Sui Yu-mei, p. 2598). The article also outlines the existence of a “large gap between the designed capacity and the actual generation rate”, and this is due mainly to the fast demographic growth and the incapacity of the waste management system to keep up with it. As a matter of fact all the landfills and the treatment systems are facing a problem of excessive load. That is why is important to develop and build some proper sites where the waste could be disposed. Consider that, usually the waste management structures are far away from the city center and that transportation is one of the main sources of emissions, also the transportation of the waste can have serious consequences on the environment and on people’s health. As the article “Municipal solid waste management in Beijing: characteristics and challenges” by Hao Wang and Chunmei Wang, explains “the overload of landfills and insufficient land resources for waste disposal are the main challenges confronting solid waste management in Beijing. Waste minimization is expected to be the first strategy and needs to be implemented more strictly as it involves public attitudinal changes. Effective waste sorting at the source is important for the next step of waste management” (Hao Wang, Chunmei Wang, p. 71).
However, the construction of stations for the management of urban waste is not the only solution to this issue. Another one is the reduction and minimization of its production starting from the beginning. If the waste management structures are overloaded, then also waste-processing capacity is unable to keep up with it. As already said before, starting in 1979 with Deng Xiaoping’s government, the country passed to a market-oriented country and it started opening to the world. A series of factors led to the beginning of an urban phenomenon. The latter was characterized by the huge migration of people from rural areas to the urban zone, where they could find job opportunities and a higher quality of life. This phenomenon happened together with a change of lifestyle and a capitalist and materialistic way of living. This new phenomenon led to an over-consumption and the consequent increase in the generation of waste. This fast-growth wasn’t controlled at the beginning and also the consequences that derived from it. People’s lifestyle changed and the arrival of consumerism and materialism became ones of the main characteristics of this system which pushed and encouraged people to consume more and more.
This capitalistic way of living combined with the incapacity of people living in the urban areas to sort the trash in a proper way, led to the worsening of this problem and to the overload of the waste management structures. As a matter of fact, people are often negligent in the way that they don’t follow the regulations. Waste management starts at the beginning of the chain, where trash is produced and people who don’t comply with the government’s regulations should be punished or fined. As a matter of fact “garbage classification programs had been tried out in Beijing for the past 10 years but that they needed to be made compulsory to maximize their effectiveness”. In fact the citizens of Beijing generate a huge amount of domestic garbage and “the city government wants more people to take garbage classification seriously”. The government, in order to tackle the problem, should create a strategy in which the education of its citizens for the correct sorting of trash should be the main priority. The government and the citizens are both responsible for the waste generation problem which could only be improved thanks to their collaboration. However the situation is only improving now, when the government started to raise awareness among citizens. However, before “China’s garbage-strewn capital of Beijing has promised to boost spending to banish growing mountains of waste, but is struggling to persuade its upwardly-mobile residents to sort their trash. Beijing is China’s biggest municipal producer of trash, having collected 8.7 million tones of household waste last year, almost double that of a decade earlier, and residents deride its sprawling landfills as a “seventh ring road”. The capital, with a population of 22 million, has vowed to recycle all household waste by the end of 2020, with officials saying it would increase its annual budget of 2 billion yuan ($289.91 million) to improve disposal and home sorting. Despite building an army of 20,000 “Green Armband” workers since 2010 to teach the art of sorting garbage, Beijing finds it tough to raise participation”. One of the solutions find by the government is to encourage people to sort their rubbish in the proper way. This solution is awarding them with points which could be used as a way to earn and get prizes, such as daily commodities. The aim of this initiative is to start regulating properly the waste management system and to tackle the waste crisis that Beijing is facing. The phase of sorting the trash is a key one for a correct functioning of the waste management system.
This essay leaves many doubts concerning the waste management problem in the city of Beijing. The solution to the problem should be a combination of different strategies. They should include the participation of the citizens together with an efficient sorting system and the effort of the government to build proper waste management stations and improve the transportation system. Unfortunately the situation is still uncertain. It is difficult and problematic to tackle the waste crisis in Beijing. However, since the amount of municipal solid waste has increased in the last years and since China’s fast economic growth, the difference between the designed capacity and the actual generation is an issue that needs to be solved for the improvement of the living standards and the well-being of its inhabitants. The waste management crisis has serious consequences on the urban structure of the city, the health of the citizens and the impact that it has on the environment. This issue could only be tackled with the citizens’ participation, the improvement and the construction of new technologies able to cope with the issue. What we know is that, after the release of the documentary by the reporter Wang Jiuliang, many landfills were closed or turned into sanitary ones under the strict control of the government. However there are still many suspended questions. Which is the present situation? Is the government still working to solve and improve this crisis? How is it going to be the situation in the long-future? If Beijing continues to grow at this rhythm, will the government be able to keep up with the waste production?
Clara Tortini, 2019
CITIES AND URBANISM IN ASIA PACIFIC_UPF
 The rise and fall of a “waste city” in the construction of an “urban circular economic system”: The changing landscape of waste in Beijing, Resources, Conservation and Recycling, Volume 107, February 2016, Pages 10-17, Xin Tong and Dongyan Tao, p.12
 Municipal solid waste management in Beijing City Zhen-shan, Yang Lei, Qu Xiao-Yan, Sui Yu-mei, p. 2598
 Municipal solid waste management in Beijing: characteristics and challenges, Hao Wang, Chunmei Wang, p. 71, November 27, 2012