Fears of water and ground pollution from waste are justified, but concerns about the world being buried under garbage seem a bit excessive, no? Perhaps not if you live amongst the stuff. A recent survey of Chinese citizens by China Youth Daily found that 75 percent of those people polled feared that one day the world will be covered in trash. No wonder: for 23 percent of those surveyed, garbage hills can be seen everywhere in the places they are living. China’s cities generate an average of 120 million tons of garbage annually, a number growing at a rate of 8 percent a year. Garbage fees are not the only answer. Fortunately, consumer awareness-raising campaigns (like Global Village Beijing's new Plastic Bag Reduction Network) are becoming more common.
But the trash problem, especially in rural areas, is set to get worse before it gets better. Along the east coast, in recycling meccas like Guiyu (above), much of the trash pile is made up of our shiny stuff (iPods and Powerbooks and phones), sent back to its country of origin in the form of toxic-tinged computer waste. The locals of such towns make a living chopping up and melting down toxic plastics and metals out of the mountains of trash, which are not unlike the opium that the British forced upon China in the 19th century. In the south, some trashed boom-towns survive on discarded plastic bags. And as one local in the town of Mai told the Guardian's Jonathan Watts,
The river is foul - we can smell it from our classrooms," says Wang Yanxia, a student at a local middle school. "When it rains, the water floods on to the path and the stench is everywhere.
After being shamed by a January report on the UK's Sky News about export trash, the Chinese government shut down all recycling operations in the southern city of Nanhai and swore a crackdown on foreign waste. But the export-import business of trash is just too valuable; the recycling towns have simply relocated.
China's trash situation raises two stinky questions for sustainable development everywhere. First, how much longer will it be before the supposed benefits of exported recycling (or, dumping, to call it what it is) -- something some argue developing nations want and need -- are seen as costs?
Second, as developing countries like China shift toward developed-country lifestyles and pile up more and more of their own trash, where will all of their trash go? (As the China Youth Daily survey showed, some in China have an idea.)
To avoid answering these questions, companies and consumers in every country, developed or developing, will need to limit their production of trash and consider how to deal with waste at home.
Curiously, Beijing's already providing a clean-up-your-mess lesson for Cupertino: after ending up at the bottom last year, China's big computer maker Lenovo came out on top of Greenpeace's recent "greener electronics" list for its take-back recycling program. Apple fell far from the tree, into last place.