Welcome To China’s Zero Waste Cities

By Yuanchao Xu 18 March, 2019

CWR's Xu unpacks China's new zero waste city initiative set to tackle the mounting solid waste challenge

China produces 10bn tonnes of solid waste every year and some cities are literally surrounded by garbage; hazardous waste, household garbage & medical waste generation are still growing
Ten cities will be selected as 'zero waste city' pilots to 1) control the increase of industrial solid waste 2) completely utilise main agricultural waste, & 3) prohibit illegal dumping of solid waste
Regions of national strategic importance e.g. the Yangtze River Economic Belt (YREB) & the Greater Bay Area (GBA) will be given priority in the pilot city selection

China has the largest population and solid waste generation in the world. Every year there is an increase of 10 billion tonnes of solid waste, and China is still sitting on 60-70 billion tonnes of waste storage. Some cities are literally “surrounded by garbage”.

A “zero waste city” aims for more comprehensive utilisation & lower environmental impacts of solid waste

On 21 January 2019, the general office of the State Council took a further step to solving this by publishing the “Work Plan for the Pilot Program of ‘Zero Waste Cities’ Construction”. So what is a “zero waste city”? It doesn’t necessarily mean no solid waste generation. Instead it is more of an advanced urban management concept that aims for more comprehensive utilisation and lower environmental impacts of solid waste. But before we explore the main targets and tasks of the zero waste city work plan, let’s first take a look at China’s solid waste challenge.

Solid waste in China – a growing problem

The generation and treatment of four types of solid waste (general industrial solid waste, industrial hazardous waste, medical waste and urban living garbage) in the last five record years (2013-2017) are shown below. General industrial solid waste accounts for most of solid waste generation. Urban living garbage takes second place with roughly as much as 1/10 of the general industrial solid waste. It’s also important to note that the disposal rate of medical waste and urban living garbage is almost 100%.

  • For general industrial solid waste, the generation has been declining over the period, as well as the comprehensive utilisation and the disposal. But the storage has been steadily increasing, adding pressure to future waste treatment
  • Generation of hazardous industrial waste dropped a little in 2014 then kept increasing afterwards
  • Likewise, the generation of the urban living garbage and the medical waste has been growing, probably owing to the clustering effect of population and medical resources in cities

Main targets of Zero Waste Cities

To achieve a Beautiful China, the government has already issued a series of regulations and policies including the Air Ten, Water Ten and Soil Ten plans, the ban on importing foreign waste, etc. However, as shown in the charts above, the high intensity of waste generation, not to mention frequent illegal dumping means improvements are needed in existing waste management. Zero waste cities is one way forward.

Ten pilot “zero waste cities” will control the increase of industrial solid waste, utilise agricultural wastes & prohibit illegal dumping

Ten cities from different regions, development levels and with varying industrial compositions will be selected as pilots. Pilot cities are supposed to control the increase of industrial solid waste, completely utilise main agricultural wastes and completely prohibit illegal dumping of solid waste. Also, by 2020, an environmental pollution insurance system is to be promoted to relevant enterprises in pilot cities.

Several main tasks and key sectors are mentioned in the work plan:

  • Establish a national consistent statistical system for solid waste;
  • Incorporate classification and treatment of solid wastes into cities’ infrastructure, and provide corresponding land;
  • Promote green mining (key sectors: coal, nonferrous metal, gold, metallurgy, chemicals, non-metallic mining), green supply chain and solid waste recycling (key sectors: battery, electronics, automobile);
  • Promote green living style and green products (key sectors: hotels, restaurants, food & beverage, governments, schools);
  • Financial support including tax exemption, green finance, environmental pollution insurance;
  • Third-party enterprises specialising in solid waste utilisation and pollution control are encouraged.

So which cities are most likely to be impacted by this plan?

Hotspots in waste generation

The waste generation of a city varies year by year, but there are some cities which always appear in the top ten list of waste generation. We look at which these cities are in each solid waste category below.

  • Ordos (Inner Mongolia) and Panzhihua (Sichuan) are two hotspots which produce the most general industrial solid waste. While Panzhihua’s waste generation has kept steady, Ordos saw an increasing trend over the last 5 years and has become the top producer of general industrial solid waste since 2016.
  • For industrial hazardous waste in particular, Suzhou (Jiangsu) and Yantai (Shandong) are the two hotspots. Both cities saw an increasing trend over the period, in which Yantai has become the top producer of industrial hazardous waste since 2014.

  • Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou (Guangdong) are the hot cities in medical waste generation, and Beijing and Shanghai have always been the top two cities over the period. A clear increasing trend is seen for all three cities.
  • For urban living garbage generation, the top ten list hasn’t changed much during the last five years. Six hot cities are picked including Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu (Sichuan), Guangzhou (Guangdong), Hangzhou (Zhejiang), Shenzhen (Guangdong). Beijing and Shanghai have again been the top two cities over the period.

Regions of strategic importance e.g. YREB & GBA will be considered first in the pilot city selection

An official of the Ministry of Ecology and Environment says that regions of strategic importance, such as Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei (JJJ region), the Yangtze River economic belt and the Greater Bay Area, will be considered first in the pilot city selection. This appears to make sense given most of the hotspots above are in those regions.

Zero waste cities beyond China

Although the construction of “zero waste cities” was proposed firstly in China, other developed countries such as Japan, Europe and Singapore have also had similar initiatives in solid waste management. Japan started its circular economy & society plan in the 1990s; while Europe and Singapore have also published their own zero waste plans promoting circular and zero waste economy.

For China, there is some catching up to do. Although some measures have already initiated in some regions, it’s still far from enough. But the “zero waste cities” pilot can build on this and be a good exploration for a waste management system “with Chinese characteristics” and a conveyor of green living.


Further Reading

  • Two Sessions: Reform – Transform – It has been a tough year but President Xi is staying true to his resolution to build a Beautiful China – what transformations can we expect? Find out in our review of this year’s Two Sessions
  • Key Water Policies 2018-2019 – Haven’t been following China’s environment & water-related policies? Get on top of them now with China Water Risk’s review, including China’s first Soil Ten Law & renewable energy quotas
  • Top 10 Responsible Investment Trends For 2019 In China – Chinese financial institutions are increasingly embracing responsible investment, so follow their lead and get up to date with the latest developments and key trends for 2019 from Syntao
  • Water Quality From On-Ground: Huang Long Xian Village Case – Jerry Jiang, Wanying Na and Zhenzhen Xu from the Alliance for Water Stewardship showcase their education pilot and explain how it has raised awareness on ground & improved local water quality in China
  • China’s Water Sharing Treaties – Reciprocity In Practice? – Does China really deserve its bad rap over its water sharing practices? Chongqing University’s Dr. David J. Devlaeminck questions this by exploring water sharing norms through a Chinese lens
  • Sustainable Cities Water Index 2016: The Asian perspective – Now more than ever, cities & their waterscapes face challenges. Arcadis’ inaugural water index of 50 cities has 9 out of 12 Asian cities ranked in the bottom half. Arcadis’ John Batten expands on the results & more
  • The Future Of Low Carbon Cities In China – China has launched 42 low carbon city pilots. Who is doing what and who is doing the best? Get the latest from Professor Andreas Oberheitmann of FOM University
  • 3 People-Green-Tech Chinese Initiatives – To win its War on Pollution, China is also turning to technology to engage the public. China Water Risk’s Dawn McGregor & Yuanchao Xu share three such technologies & their success so far
  • Water As Leverage For Resilient Cities – Water represents man’s most challenging & complex risk but it can be leveraged for catalytic change. China Water Risk asks Henk Ovink, the first Special Envoy for Water in the world, how this can be achieved

Yuanchao Xu
Author: Yuanchao Xu
Yuanchao uses his analytical proficiencies towards the assessment and visualization of water risks for China Water Risk. Prior to joining, Yuanchao was based in Europe completing the Erasmus Mundus Master Program where he specialsed in hydro-informatics and water management. He applied his skills in climate forecasting and water resource modelling to the EUPORIAS project with DHI (Danish Hydraulic Institute) which resulted in a conference paper on seasonal climate forecasting. Building on this work, he went on to develop hyfo, an open-source R programme for climate scientists and modellers to analyse and visualize data. Yuanchao’s bachelor degree was from the China Agricultural University where he specialized in heat energy and power engineering. During his time there, he also patented a testing instrument for hydraulic machinery. He has studied and worked in Beijing, Nice, Newcastle and Copenhagen.
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