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Need to Know

China's Trash Is Getting Dirtier

Over the weekend, for the second time in as many years, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in China’s southern Bolou County to oppose the construction of a proposed trash incinerator. The protest was ironic, given that such facilities are needed precisely because ordinary Chinese like them are producing too much garbage for landfills to handle. At the same time, the demonstrators have reason to be concerned: The fumes coming out of any new incinerator are likely to be more toxic than ever before.

That's because of China’s dwindling army of trash pickers and scrap peddlers. As recently as 2012, food and other organics made up roughly 70 percent of China’s solid waste. Some would be sold into the agricultural sector for feed or fertilizer, while the rest would be trucked out to sprawling landfills on the edges of China’s cities. The remaining 30 percent rarely made it to those same landfills. Rather, scrap peddlers would pull the material out before it got into garbage trucks, then would sell it into the recycling system. It was a beautiful example of entrepreneurship evolving to meet a social need.

Now Chinese are producing a rapidly expanding volume of trash. According to the World Bank, Chinese tossed out 0.79 kilograms of municipal solid waste per capita every day in 1999. By 2012, that number had grown to 1.02 kilograms per capita per day, according to a more recent report. That represents almost a 30 percent increase in 13 years -- enough to make China the world’s biggest generator of solid waste. And the problem is only going to grow: The World Bank estimates that by 2025, Chinese will throw away 150 percent more per capita than they did in 1999.

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