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China

Mounting Trash Emergency Literally Encircles Beijing

The Chinese mega-city has grown so fast that it has built seven peripheral roads, but has also become surrounded by rings of garbage dumps. A journey to the depths of Beijing's sprawling, unregulated trash dumps.

Trash in Beijing (Boris van Hoytema)
Trash in Beijing (Boris van Hoytema)
Liu Jingsong

BEIJING - China's capital has grown so huge that it now has seven peripheral roads. It is also becoming encircled by garbage. This is both a metaphor and serious dilemma.

Wang Jiuliang, a photographer, was the first to expose the little-known Seventh Ring Zone garbage dumps in his documentary video and photos called "Besieged by Garbage." Wang illustrates the scope by marking these 400 sites in yellow on a Google map, which form a dense ring, effectively encircling Beijing. The image is shocking, of a city besieged.

Wang Jiuliang has visited all 400 refuse heaps. "When you walk around these landfills, you can hear the sound of money flowing everywhere. Behind each dumping site lies interests." he says, in a voice still charged with emotion.

I went to one of these dumping grounds near Xiaozhangwan village, three kilometers south of the Beijing's Sixth Ring Road. Some scavengers were classifying the garbage by picking out cloth, metal, and plastic, and then putting the remnants into a more distant pit.

According to villagers, the pit with an area of about 300 acres was formerly a sandpit around 6 to 7 meters deep. It has been contracted to certain individuals since 2009, and is now almost completely full. A thin layer of earth covers the pit. Above it are lines of shanties for those who work on the site.

This illegal dump is not under Beijing's sanitary monitoring system. Contractors have simply paid the village in order to operate their garbage recycling business. I went westbound from Xiaozhangwan village for two kilometers and found, sheltered behind a forest, another bigger refuse dump with much the same activity.

Charged by the truckload

Unrecoverable rubbish like mud, human waste, building rubble, and domestic waste are dumped directly into the pit. The charge for dumping depends on the size of the truck. As for recyclable materials, the site was divided into a number of sections to contain timber, metal, domestic junk, etc.

One of the sub-contractors from Xinyang of Henan Province said he moved here from another dump last year, and most people who work here are his compatriots from Xinyang. "The operators are all local people. They rent the pits from their village and then subcontract them to us', he told me.

Wang Jiuliang encountered serious trouble while making his documentary film. Some people chased him with knives or dogs. Others would warn him: "You are looking for trouble." He was once encircled by a dozen young men who threatened to break his camera. Finally they let him go after deleting the images he had taken.

After the exhibition of his documentary, Wang revisited the dumping sites he had seen. Fifty percent of them had been dealt with by the city government. Some had been cleaned up, but then people restarted the dumping. Thirty pecent of them are not yet dealt with.

Previously unlicensed garbage sites proliferated because of poor management by the authority, but the above-mentioned garbage zones are driven by deliberate action in search of profits. According to Wang's rough calculation, more than one-third of these dumps are rented out as businesses.

Yet Wang Weiping, the official adviser and specialist of waste problems of Beijing government, denies there's a second round of problems with Beijing's garbage. He reckons that the problem truly existed in late 1980's, but "they are far fewer and less dense now."

Gold mining

In comparison with regulated dumps, which require considerable measures for dust-prevention, anti-seepage and anti-pollution, the wild dumps require nothing of the sort, making their cost of operation much lower. The contractor doesn't make much money out of collecting garbage. The most profitable part of business lies in recycling the waste.

Pit operators charge for each dumping according to the content. "In fact, if your trash contains a lot of valuable stuff for recycling, not only don't you pay, on the contrary, the operator might be paying you," Wang told me.

I also visited a garbage station in the Chaoyang District of Beijing. This is supposed to be the only station that takes food waste, but very little actually arrives there.

According to the workers here, big restaurants' food waste has waiting buyers who collect it and resell it as swill for pigs. Food waste is the most valuable. As a result, it's mostly taken away by buyers who select what they want and then dump the rest in illegal landfills.

Besides, though the idea of garbage classification is a good one, the practice is far from ideal. Before garbage is sent to public-run garbage stations, it is already picked over by scavengers.

According to Wang Jiuliang, Beijing had as many as 100,000 people working as scavengers in 2010, and together they cleared away some four million tons of trash. Beijing's annual production of garbage is 6.5 million tons. That shows how much profit there is in the garbage business.

Although classification is supposed to be the precondition of reducing waste, the problem is that after the scavengers have finished their picking they take their booty to the Fifth Ring Road, to the one hundred or so waste material trading points. Some of what they bring will be rejected, and so new dumps are formed again.

Read the orginial story in Chinese

photo - Boris van Hoytema

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