Life on a wasteland
Source: Global Times
Shui Ge landfill, with a daily waste disposal capacity of 2,600 tons, is located in the Jiangning district of Nanjing, capital of Jiangsu Province. It attracts many rag pickers every day. The city's Bureau of Urban Utilities and Landscaping plans to abandon the landfill by 2012. Photo: CFP
By Liang Chen
"Stinky! Garbage mountain!" squeals Lele, a 2-year-old toddler, pointing his tiny finger to a hill heaped with garbage in front of his house.
The little boy is the son of Axia, a villager in Yuanfeng, Humen county, under the prefecture of Dongguan, Guangdong Province.
"It smells so bad that I have to shut my doors and windows after getting up in the morning," says Axia, who must live with the reeking stench of a garbage dump 800 meters away from his house. "We have to stay indoors day and night."
"Garbage Mountain" is a landfill in the Dalingshan forest of Humen. Since it opened in August 1994, the trash heap has collected about 4 million tons of garbage, according to local statistics.
"The garbage has been rotting for 15 years and it is difficult to handle," Ren Liping, a female senior engineer at the Utilities Service Center at Humen, told the Global Times.
At the foot of the hill, black sewage drains into farmland. Looking upward, you can see a second mountain of garbage, 30 meters high, growing on the hilltop.
Rags, glass fragments, plastic garbage bags and other solid household garbage can be seen clearly.
The hill peak is about two football fields wide. The trash heap has no cover. When the wind blows, a garbage storm blows smelly trash in people's faces.
"Villagers are afraid of a northwest wind blowing after rainy days," a villager, surnamed Han, who refused to give his full name, told the China Economic Times.
Villagers dare not go outside on windy days, Han said.
Han said about 100 garbage trucks dump refuse on the landfill in a day. The stench is so nauseating that his family can't fall asleep even with the door closed.
"We really cannot bear it."
Villagers must also live with the constant danger of the waste heap catching fire, due to the spontaneous combustion of methane gas as the garbage rots.
A landfill in Huaibei, a prefecture-level city in northern Anhui Province Photo: CFP
The garbage dump not only pollutes the air and invites fire disasters, but also creates panic over health dangers in the village.
Half of the interviewees in the village claimed they have sore throats and their noses are always itching.
Among 427 villagers, 11 were diagnosed with cancer over the past six years. Six cancer patients have died.
The cancer rate in Yuanfeng county is three times higher than the national average of 0.2 percent each year in China, said Wang Qian, director of Hepatology at the First Affiliated Hospital of Guangzhou Zhongshan University.
In August 2009, the newspaper published a list of cancer patients in Yuanfeng and dubbed it, "Cancer Village."
The head of the village, Deng Zhihong, moved from his house several years ago.
There are various methods of waste disposal, such as sorting mixed rubbish, landfill reclamation, recycling, compost treatment, incineration of municipal refuse and chemical treatment.
"It seems that the compost work began in 2007, because the garbage field cannot be incinerated at all and the only way out is to bury it," Ren Liping told the Global Times.
However, a journalist for the China Economic Times said there are no signs of dirt covering the cross-section of the hill and no trucks have been seen delivering topsoil to the dump.
When asked why the organic waste isn't being buried, Zhong Quanzhou, vice-director of the Utilities Service Center in Humen, said,"We don't cover the garbage with dirt unless it's needed."
A vice-director of the Dalingshan Forest of Humen, surnamed Han, has witnessed the expansion of the dump over the past 15 years.
"The garbage dump was just about five meters high in the very beginning, but now it is much higher," Han said.
The media's constant attention to the cancer-causing possibilities of the dump has pressured local government to consider "going green."
Local authorities decided to allocate 40 million yuan($5.85 million) to reduce pollution by adding topsoil to the landfill.
"The work to cover the dump with earth has almost been finished," Ren said. Her plan is to stack the garbage in terraces, like a flight of stairs, 8 meters apart, and cover each step with topsoil.
Ren and her team plan to finish the work in late April.
After that, another group of people will take charge of planting trees and sowing grass seed on the garbage mountain.
"In about 10 years, I think we can see a really green hill on the dump," Ren said, confidently. By that time, little Lele will be 12 years old and, if his family doesn't move, he will have spent most of his childhood living in a smelly, dangerous wasteland.
Experts have mixed opinions on the effectiveness of the landfill treatment.
"A landfill itself is also a huge pollution problem," said Zhao Zhangyuan, a researcher at the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences, referring to polluted wastewater that oozes into neighboring farmland. Wastewater containing chemicals from ordinary household cleaners can damage crops and poison drinking water.
According to a report by the State Council, only 57 percent of the 935 landfills in China have passed safety examinations and gained approval for their environmental impact.
"In fact, most of the landfills asking us to do the assessments are large-scale, while the hidden perils lie in the small and simple landfills that don't undergo an assessment," Zhao said.
Among the unexamined landfills, 34 percent have taken no measures to block waste seepage, and 39 percent have done nothing to divert rain water and sewage.
"The landfills can pollute the underground water easily, if there are no corresponding measures to take care of it," Zhao said.
Actually, the dump under reconstruction in Humen county has drainage ditches on the perimeter of the hill to divert rain water and sewage, according to Ren.
Disposing of garbage properly and safely is a tough task for local governments, not only in Humen, but in other counties, cities and provinces.
In China, the environmental protection departments supervise landfills, but local law enforcement agencies lack the authority to monitor supervision and punish the polluters.
"It is not objective for the related environmental protection departments to monitor the effect on the environment," an anonymous expert on waste disposal told the Global Times.
In 1999, the Chinese government allocated 10 billion ($ 1.46 billion) for the construction of the landfills.
As municipal garbage piles up by the truckload, money alone cannot restore the balance of environmental protection and sustainable economic growth. While experts argue over solutions, the landfills are becoming saturated.
The most common way to dispose solid waste is to build up the landfills.
This is not as simple as it sounds because every layer of garbage must be covered by a layer of topsoil 30 centimeters deep.
"Four years from now, all the landfills in Beijing will be saturated," said Wang Weiping, an expert on waste removal in Beijing.
There are now 17 landfills in Beijing.
"If we go on disposing of waste with landfills, we may face a shortage of land," said Zhao Zhangyuan.
Land shortages have already been seen in Chengdu, Shanghai and other cities trying to tackle the problem of landfill saturation.
Chengdu authorities have considered that garbage incineration would burn up 70 percent of the organic waste volume and generate electric power through combustion, according to the West China City Daily.
The first utility plant powered by garbage incineration in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, opened in 2008. In little more than two years, the plant has digested 1,200 tons of garbage while generating 130 million kilowatt-hours of electricity.
The city is scheduled to construct another three electricity generating plants in the near future, designed to consume 1,800 tons of waste each year.
But garbage incinerators also create air pollution, adding to the dilemma.
The most effective and easiest way to dispose of garbage is to separate organic refuse from glass and plastic containers that can be recycled.
But in Chengdu, the recycling bins have had no effect. People are either unaware of recycling or don't want to take the trouble of sorting it out, preferring to just dump everything into one bin.
"The government has to come up with more scientific and sound measures on how to deal with the disposal of the waste in the future," Zhao said.
Increasing protests over garbage removal have caused frictions in the delicate relationship between local governments and the people.
Recently the Guangzhou government called off the opening of a garbage incinerator in the Panyu district; reacting to strong protests from thousands of landlords living close to the incineration site.
The government promises to hold public hearings after the release of an environment impact assessment.
Experts suggest that China learn from other countries with landfills located near residential areas.
"There was no foul smell when I visited these landfills," Wang Weiping said.
"Mainly because, unlike China, landfills in other countries obey operational standards."
In China, there are no specific regulations on waste incineration and operational specifications for landfills has not yet been written into law.
Wang called on the government to set penalties when landfills are not monitored for pollution.
While city dwellers celebrate a victory for environmental protection, they will still be using little villages like Yuanfeng as garbage cans and little Lele faces life on a wasteland.