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To sort or not to sort, this may not be a question

SEP . 16 2011

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Peking University, Sept.16, 2011: “It’s useless. Totally a waste of time! Even if you sort out garbage in line with whatever international standards, all will be mixed together in the end,” says Mr. Yang, a truck driver assigned to Peking University (PKU) by Beijing Environment Sanitation Engineering Group Co., Ltd.


Suffering hugely from the worsening situation of waste besiegement, Beijing pins all its hopes on garbage sorting and recycling. Mr. Yang, a veteran of the urban waste collection system, however, is not so optimistic.


To sort or not, “the waste on campus”, which is produced everyday from student dormitories, teaching buildings, canteens, and one on-campus clinic, “ends up altogether in the same dump site before being loaded onto my collection truck," says Mr. Yang. Four times a day, he transports 20 stere of garbage from the on-campus disposal site to one neighboring secondary waste transfer station on city skirts in Haidian District. Pointing at a two-floored building near Student Canteen No.5, Yang showed us the site, where Mr. Bian is in charge. 


“My staff and I pick out what can be sold, such as cardboard, cans, and plastic bottles,” Mr. Bian says. He never bothers to sort out kitchen garbage, packaging, or hazardous waste because he thinks they are “worthless”.


Professor Zhou Qifeng, president of PKU, made a speech on the University's pioneering role in building a “green campus” at the 11th China Annual Conference for International Education titled “Green Future, Education Leads” last year. Banners demanding everybody’s participation in garbage classification waved in the romantic wind of Weiming Lake. However, the monumental task of waste sorting across the whole campus has fallen on the garbage collectors.


At four o’clock every morning, the cleaning lady at PKU Dormitory 34A, starts her busy day searching the trash cans to sort out waste and pass on the rest to that waste disposal site. All is done even before students wake up from their hilarious dreams.



Mrs. Wu, the cleaning lady and waste collector of PKU Dormitory 34A, is sorting out garbage

at work time in addition to her regular duties. (Photo by Li Chenzhao)


The cleaning lady – Mrs. Wu, 37, rather small in stature – has been working on campus for eight years as refuse collector as well. She is the only person responsible for classification of the waste produced by over 700 future intellectuals living in the building. Having taken no environmental course, Mrs. Wu shapes her personal standard for refuse sorting as profit-oriented.


 “I will pick out uncolored plastic bags, bottles, packaging and paper, and electronic devices you students have abandoned,” says Mrs. Wu, “once a week, my husband, a dustman of the university, takes them to scrap merchants off campus, too.” She admits that colored plastic bags are too low in price, so she never sorts them out.



Mrs. Wu is collecting recyclable waste into the huge yellow sack. (Photo by Li Chenzhao)


In Beijing, there are about 170 thousand scavengers who make a living among the filthy trash. Last year, they made a trophy of 4 million tons of recycled garbage. Wang Weiping, Beijing Municipal Administration Commission’s vice chief engineer, adores them as experts for refuse classification, “They help to recycle waste and reduce the amount of garbage for disposal.”


Though praised as uncrowned environmental fighters, garbage collectors themselves have no idea how the menial work has anything to do with the heroic role who saves the metropolis from its deadly fate of waste besiegement.


Every month, Wu earns by waste sorting an extra income of 200 Yuan in addition to her low wages. Similarly, the same work is done, although under the table - by street cleaners on campus. Waste sorting somewhat displeases supervisors responsible for sanitation issues. They deem that the thirst for earning a little extra money will prevent cleaners from concentrating on their regular duties. University administrators prefer that the unsorted mess of garbage should go directly to the disposal site and then to waste transfer stations – out of sight, out of mind.



The collection truck, fully loaded, is moving out of the on-campus disposal site for one

secondary waste transfer station on city skirts in Haidian District. (Photo by Li Chenzhao)


Solid waste is only briefly held at the on-campus disposal site prior to its shipment onto the larger transfer centre; and the transport process eventually ends up in Liulitun, the only landfill in Haidian District.


“There, loads of garbage collection will be dumped onto the ground without any further sorting, flattened and then shrouded with a layer of plastic film,” Mr. Yang, the truck driver, notes as he has been there once, “Liulitun will be filled up within four years. Then we will have to make our way into distant mountains to dump the trash.”


Including Liulitun, there are a total of 13 waste disposal fields in Beijing, overloaded with 18.4 thousand tons of garbage per day. All shall be expired for want of space within three to four years.


With the explosive rise of population and consumption, the yearly geometric increase of waste has led to the most severe environmental crisis in Beijing. Officials in the Municipal Administration Commission have to resort to waste burning as the resolution.


Nie Yongfeng, a professor at Tsinghua University, explained that the main cause for waste besiegement is the lack of capacity and means for waste disposal. “We must enhance the percentage of garbage which will be burned,” says Professor Nie.


At present, the majority of the garbage in Beijing is buried. Municipal administrators say that the government plans to burn 40 percent by 2015. However, many people oppose constructing refuse burners. As early as 2006, the project - building garbage furnace in Liulitun in replacement of the landfill - met with immediate protest among local residents and was abandoned for fear of emitting dioxin, a cancer-causing gas.


Nie Yongfeng affirms that modern technology can reduce the emission of dioxin to a tiny amount - which is too small to lead to cancer - and assures the residents of their safety with the precedent of Japan, where “over a thousand waste burners are built just inside the city.”


 “It is no other than murder to construct burning factories without well-developed waste sorting system,” Zhao Zhangping, a scholar at Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences and former PKU graduate, points out that the prerequisite for refuse incineration in Japan is their sophisticated sorting system.


Currently, the government is advocating all the citizens to participate in refuse sorting. However, Xiao Shu, a renowned commentator, noted in his blog that no matter how enthusiastic the citizens are in garbage sorting, all are in vain as long as the government fails to provide supporting infrastructures.


 “I don’t sort my garbage because there is only one dust can in the dormitory,” says Zhuang Weihuan, a PKU junior student, “I would like to do so if the collecting system will be changed.”


In a city where garbage transportation and disposal system remains backward, we shall continue to rely on the bare hands of garbage collectors for waste sorting. Mrs. Wu’s right hand was cut by a fragment of glass this morning while searching the trash can. The school used to give them a pair of gloves, but in recent years the welfare has been cut down for tight budget.


Reported by: Li Chenzhao and Tang Shanshan

Edited by: Arthars