15 cents to recycle in Beijing

Filed in Blog, Videos by on July 27, 2010 15 Comments
FavoriteLoadingAdd article to favourites

Recycling in beijingYesterday we told you that Al Jazeera English have recorded a series of 8 programmes called “Wasteful World” looking at how we deal with waste around the globe.

Yesterday’s programme was about Cairo and how their highly efficient recycling system; where 80% of their waste is recycled and sorted by hand; comes with a human cost.

Today’s programme takes us to Beijing in China. Beijing has a population of 17 million and China is the largest importer of waste.

Rubbish and recycling is a $14 billion business in China. Amazingly this huge business is built on Cottage industries where families work 10 hour days for 15 cents a kilogramme of plastic. The plastic is pelleted and becomes raw material for new products which are shipped back to Western countries.

China hopes other countries will view its status as the world’s largest purchaser of recycled plastics in a positive light. They hope we view them as a nation wrecked with pollution problems trying to reduce its carbon footprint by taking everyone’s else’s junk and doing the dirty business of recycling.

In 2008, WRAP announced in their report “CO2 impacts of transporting the UK’s recovered paper and plastic bottles to China” that selling our plastic bottles to China for recycling saved carbon emissions. They stated that “Shipping these materials more than 10,000 miles produces less CO2than sending them to landfill at home and using brand new materials”.

One of the problems with recycling in the UK is that there is insufficient capacity in the UK to reprocess them here.  Because we import so much stuff we frequently send back empty shipping containers to China. The argument goes that filling them up with our collected plastic reduces transport emissions and is better for the environment.

Take a look at the clip from Al Jazeera and let me know what you think.

About the Author ()

I am a long time supporter of the Green and Sustainable lifestyle. After being caught in the Boscastle floods in 2004, our family begun a journey to respect and promote the importance of Earth's fragile ecosystem, that focussed on reducing waste. Inspired by the beauty and resourcefulness of this wonderful planet, I have published numerous magazine articles on green issues and the author of four books.

Comments (15)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. It looks like this is the way China is going to do it until robots and more advanced sorting systems can do the work. The people will then just run the machines.

  2. I like the way the plastics are shipped back to China in shipping containers that would otherwise be going back empty, eliminating the need for additional fossil fuels to ship the plastics.

  3. Jane says:

    Pollution is mentoned but what about the respiratory and other diseases that go with that? What about the fact that production in many factories stopped in China so as to just reduce the pollution for a short while around the time of the Olympics?

    Yesterday a successful plastics recycling company was reported as looking to recycle more plastic bottles in the UK into food grade plastics instead of landfilling, incinerating or exporting them: http://www.letsrecycle.com/do/ecco.py/view_item?listid=37&listcatid=217&listitemid=55944&section=plastics

    Are we still just dumping our plastic back on the poor people of China? http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/made-in-britain-dumped-in-china-433731.html

  4. Mrs Green says:

    @Reginald Whibbey: Hello Reginald; welcome to the site. I think you are right; there is a very different work ethic in other parts of the world.

    @Betsy Bargain: Hello Betsy; yes, although I feel that sending these containers backwards and forwards is wrong, we have to accept that we live in a global community now and it’s better to ship them back full of useful materials than empty.

    @Jane: Thanks for the link to the UK company Jane. Yes, pollution and the resulting disease is a hazardous issue – in a 2 minute programme time is limited to get all the points across I guess.

  5. Carol says:

    It is seemingly a nonsense for China and Beijing to expend million upon million of RMB on incineration prohects when in reality the simplest solution after recycling is to turn the residues from the waste into the renewable fuel ethanol. It would cost around a quarter to a third the cost of plasma/gasificationand incineration plants and produce a very valuable fuel for China. Indeed just looking at the waste characteristics you give for Beijing alone suggests that at 10 million tonnes of waste per year the potential exists for Beijing alone to produce over 2,500 million litres of ethanol a year. There is a system developed using the Gravity Pressure Vessel which is being built in the UK (Yorkshire) and in Malta and Holland and elsewhere which is able to do this for the Waste. And without a doubt it is the best system I have come across being the simplest and least complex which will help Beijing.

  6. Mrs Green says:

    @Carol: thanks Carol – I’m not very up to date with this sort of information, so it’s great that you have been able to educate me. I’m still not sure how I feel about this, but I will read up and see what I come up with.

  7. Carol says:

    It seems Mrs Green: that unless you get the messages over to the relevant people there is little impetus for anything to be done.

    Whilst there are those in Beijing and Harbin and Shanghai and ChongQ’ing all reporting their aghast against the issue of incineration in China, and whilst even the World Bank reports that it is not suitable for China because of the high water content of the raw materials and the poor quality of the waste content that denies it being suitable to burn (after all incineration is burning) without adding fossil fuels to it, and whilst there are very questionable issues and questions raised about the toxicity of the emissions and the residues from the process that raise serious environmental and health concerns with the discerning public (why is it that there are no incineration projects in Manhattan or Kensington and Chelsea in London or in the middle of Paris, they always seem to be placed in the poorest vicinities of the major cities!! – the only thing that matters when all things are considered to be equal is the cost. ((Didn’t a well-known US Presidential Candidate once say ….in response to the question…What is the Election Issue then?….It’s the Economy Stupid! On that basis converting the residues from waste to a transport fuel (after recycling) when the capital cost is less than a third of incineration plants and the revenue stream is far superior to that from making electricity by a ratio of 4 to 1 and the need for a gate (or treatment) fee after say five years can even be reconsidered, then there is seemingly no contest.

  8. Mrs Green says:

    @Carol: Hello Carol; you’re right, messages have to be delivered to the right places, to the right people and most importantly, at the right time. And unfortunately the ‘bottom line’ is always the basis for major decisions …

  9. Carol says:

    Hello Mrs Green: I seemed to have been away from the desk.
    When we look at the bottom line as Ethical Engineers and Advisors it always seems to me that the Clients (in this instance people working in for example the Metropolitan City of Beijing or Shanghai etc take note more of their current team of advisors rather than think outside of the barrel. For example the World Bank used to rely heavily on Lehemeyer the consulting advisors for major energy and power station programmes until they were found out with their fingers in the till reaping rewards from both their Clients and the Service Contractors – in such places as widely dispersed as Malaysia Indonesia Greece Cyprus the Canaries and now it even seems Malta. They were blocked from the World Bank advisory role but slipped in through the doors under the EBRD and EIB roles in the EU! Now they have been caught out big time with their Power Company masters from Japan likely to be called in to repay at least €2000 million to the people and residents of Malta and other countries for punitive damages for consequential losses.
    Consider also the issues of incineration of waste – a position of close scrutiny in the PRC for Beijing Metropolitan Area at this time. They are currently reviewing the way forward and are using the old fashioned approach of using existing advisors to assess the merits of a pre-disposition of a policy that harkens to the words of incineration (and its altar egos of ATT – Advanced Thermal Treatment – a degree of euphemism that addresses Gasification and Plasma-Arc Gasification – which are known to be:-
    (i) categorically the most unfriendly in terms of Public Health for they promote the dispersion of toxic and carcinogenic emissions right to the very centre of the alveoli of humans in foetuses and the pre-pubescent young;
    (ii) environmentally unsound for they address the issues of waste management and treatment from the reverse hierarchy of the waste pyramid (Rethink, Reuse, Reduce, Recycle and Rework so that in that issue they take the Waste and Burn it (for that is exactly what Incineration and the akin ATT processes do) so as to give up any potential value to society – save for a small gain in energy – as a mixture of gaseous and particulate wastes and smoke and smells emitted to the atmosphere together with a significant residue of toxic bottom ash and clinker which – at around 25% to 35% of the input waste streams for Beijing – will cost around 4 to 5 times the normal rate to store in a proscribed and secure land fill for at least 100 years before it can be declared “Safe!”
    (iii) which is always the most costly means to manage treat and dispose of waste by the order of 3 times that of the best alternative choice.
    These decisions are not based upon the Policy of adherence to Government Policy for we know that in the PRC the edicts of the Circular Economy (confirmed by the Party Congress and espoused by the President and Prime Minister of the PRC) are now Law and yet the Metropolitan City defies this at the Highest Levels.
    These decisions are not based upon the Policy or adherence to Government Policy for we know that in France the edicts of President Nicholas Sarkozy were set out in his (the) Grenelle speech about Policy at his inauguration when He confirmed that all new incineration projects (including upgrades of existing ones resultant upon changes in Environmental Legislation) were to be considered as the Last Resort of Use.
    These decisions made by the consultants and advisors to Clients and Governments run fire against the best advices given by the World Bank in its own edicts.
    These decisions made by the consultants and advisors are based upon self-propagation of fees they gain from their “Expert” advice.
    These areas of “Expert” Advice are based upon the historical use of same on programmes where the decision making was based upon dated information emanating from the 1960s and 1970s which later began to be questioned when the ill-effects of certain carry-over diseases were noted Firstly in animals and Secondly in humans so that Legislation had to be enacted to redress the previously accepted status of the emissions of such plants much to the consternation of the incineration plant manufacturers’ lobby! (It is for this reason that it takes roughly 15 years to accept changes in Legislation and to get same adopted for incineration methods because the anti-change movement and its methods for agreement includes the purveyors of such plants and facilities.)
    These “Experts” in the field of advice for Incineration-style projects know full well that with Fees for Advice running at 6 to 8% of the Capital Costs that the more expensive a project/programme is the wealthier they become. (imagine it 8% of a Capital Cost of a US $ 650 million dollar programme for Beijing rewards the consultants with $52 million above and beyond the capital value….and then if the out-turn cost increases by 10% the fees go up at the same ratio.) This is a farce! Now imagine the situation in Beijing again when the “Experts” putting up these fanciful projects know full well that they will come across the issue such as that at An Ding where the anti-incineration lobby is so strong – that it will eventually receive the hearing of the President and Premier of the PRC – and where in putting up this proposal the additional needs to placate the anti-incinerating lobby will cost the country a potential 20% extra bill on any incineration-style facility because of potentially higher more restrictive measures should same ever be built – the advisors win again on fees. This is immoral and totally unethical.
    The advisors and consultants to the Government its Municipalities and the likes should be behaving in a more ethical role instead of pampering up to the manufacturers of such plants.
    Why do you think the Malaysian project at Broga Kuala Lumpur was stopped? Why is there a major who-ha in Mauritius? Why is there a major disquiet in Malta against incineration? Why has incineration been banned since 1999 in the Philippines? Why has Viet Nam objected to incineration? Why has Tanzania fought desperately to get out of the incineration financial trap? Why has Dublin (Ireland) and Belfast (Northern Ireland) fought so hard against the common advisers for both proposals to rid themselves of the incineration mess? Why is it that incineration is hated in India? Why is it that incineration is hated in Pakistan? Why is it that Egypt and Mexico and many other countries are now rethinking this issue? And what about the PRC? Is it because in the last resort they are TOO DAMNED EXPENSIVE? Of course they are!
    Now lets move on to today’s rethinking outside the barrel issue. If the PRC and Beijing alone was to consider taking the current total quantity of its Municipal Solid Waste and extract all the recyclables it can and then convert this residue to a Renewable Fuel Ethanol in the year 2020 (about which time this could be achieved) IT WOULD ALMOST CERTAINLY PROVIDE ALL THE TRANSPORT FUEL NEEDED FOR AROUND 3 MILLION CARS ALONE IN BEIJING AND SAVE IMPORTING AROUND 25 MILLION BARRELS OF OIL TO THE PRC A YEAR….EQUIVALENT TO SAVING ON IMPORTS OF $2300 MILLION EACH YEAR AT $92 A BARRELL.
    But so what, well the consultants and advisors would only make a quarter of their Fees for these projects when built in Beijing (and lets assume that there were 10 of them spread around the city would cost less than a third of the equivalent in incineration-style programmes and would not create any public health or environmental health issues at all.
    For the PRC this is the only realistic option to solve its problems with dealing with its Municipal Solid Wastes and attempting to lessen the impact of car fumes in cities such as Beijing Shanghai and others and in total could provide over 60% of its fuel needs for private car uses by 2030.
    So having attained a Zero Waste to Land Fill option and provided a valuable fuel what else could be asked?
    Why is it then that the Metropolitan City of Beijing is so adamant about incineration? It is against the Circular Economy issues that are cast in to law. Is there something else a hidden agenda here…..?

  10. Karel says:

    I am absolutely non-plussed at the stupidity of Beijing Municipality considering Incineration/Gasification/PlasmaArc for Anding in Beijing.

    This is an absolute nonsense for the Waste is so wet (55% water content) that you would be spending so much money a year on just drying the waste rather than burning it.

    Surely Mr Mayor you must agree with the Peremier that in this Circular Economy that after all the Rethink Reduce Reuse and Recycle issues the next best thing and only way forward for the residual waste is to turn it into Biofuel Ethanol.

    Consider this…..if Beijing produces 30,000 tonnes of waste per day at 50% water content with – as reported — 25% real recyclables then by converting the residues to Ethanol you would make 1,300 million litres a year (1.3 Billion litres per year) which would provide enough fuel for transport in Beijing alone to save China 16 million barrels of oil being imported and saving spending US $1,400 million (1.4 Billion) a year on imports. If you then add the other cities such as Behai Shanghai ChongQing etc the country as a wholw would be able to reduce its oil imports by nearly 45% and it could even be self-sufficient in transportation fuels by adding to it the agricultural/faming waste.

    And it would be cheaper than incineration by almost 75%. It can only be done though using simple technology as Applied Biofuels are proposing under its own patents. It can be done in 7 to 8 years from now.

    So let’s see it happen and then you may one day be Premier.

  11. Geraldin says:

    There is something behind this idea that merits this being universally adopted in China.

  12. Geraldin says:

    Hello All Correspondents: I have only just researched this in recent time from here in Malta: so here goes.

    Referring back to the Al Jazeera sequence of programmes they were indeed very informative but at what cost to Society is this being done. I have only managed to see four of these programmes and it makes for very depressing views. Cairo like Beijing or Mumbai or Nairobi and many other major Metropolises have serious issues with Waste Collection and thence subsequent Treatment. Adding to it by taking imports from the So-called “First World” nations (the West) is not a serious position. Just think for the moment that Beijing in 2015 will be producing over 30,000 tonnes of Municipal Solid Waste per day! And Cairo around 12,000 tonnes per day! These are not insignificant amounts by any standard for in comparison they mean over 1200 “ 40-foot containers” full per day for Beijing and 480 “40-foot containers” full per day for Cairo at today’s 2010 disposal rate!

    I see that a reference was made to WRAP (Waste Resources Action Programme). This Quango is the most severely criticised mouth-piece of the Waste Industry in the UK. It has recently suggested that the average person in the UK throws away an awful lot of food as waste each year which across England and Wales amounts to 8,300,000 tonnes each year (or if we assume that this is for a population of 54 million equates to 153 kilogrammes per person per year (339 lbs weight per person per year) and that this costs England and Wales £10,200 million per year (€12,240 million per year/$15,300 million per year) or £190 per person per year (which equals €267 or US$283 per person per year) Man Woman Child, regardless of age (from a new-born child up to a pensioner) regardless of where the person is (including hospitalised persons, disabled persons, prisoners and the armed forces etc) – this whole statement is so farcically wrong that the whole of WRAP needs disbanding immediately. Some of their other studies have also proven to be so outlandishly wrong that they are the laughing stock of the world.

    Now in returning to why I was writing. Some comments.

    1] The issue of pollution in China is growing in issue. Tackling this at source is one thing, preventing additions is another: we should therefore not send Rubbish – Waste to China. And certainly not the plastics

    2] Shipping plastics either as first choice or back to China is hardly commonsense Betsy/Jane. Since most plastics are not chlorinated the best way forward would be to contain them at the place of use and reform them into the Replacement Fuel for Transport – Diesel. Plastics are generally Oxy-hydrocarbons and they have cross-bonded links in their chemical matrixes between carbon atoms (usually single-bonds) and these can be broken very easily under pressure or in Supercritical-Water, Supercritical-carbon dioxide conditions.

    It seems that the commentary of sending this commodity (raw material) to China favours the few because of the idea of shipping back empty containers to China. Shipping back empty containers is an issue but shipping them back with a raw material which has a value of great significance to the originating country is not the solution. So rather than thinking that this is preferable to shipping back empty containers to China we should think through the real options. (Later on in this article I have a solution to the containers issue which I am patenting next week,)

    These plastics will convert readily and easily to a Replacement Fuels for petro-Diesel fairly inexpensively, and to put it into perspective – cost benefit wise – this is much more important than the empty container issue: more importantly 1 tonne of plastics will produce over 450 litres (100 Imperial Gallons) of Diesel which – to all intents and purposes – would be a like-for-like replacement for petro-Diesel. More to the point, this Diesel is worth in terms of €uro currency €580–00+ per tonne of plastic – or as the equivalent in US Dollar terms $800—00+ per tonne of plastics! So even if we discounted the fact that it costs 60% of this to make the benefit as a net saving on importing Oil to the host country (that is to the one who would be exporting the plastics to China so filling the empty containers) is fairly substantial. It equates to the avoidance of over 6 Barrels of oil being imported, and with a Barrel of Oil now selling for US $90—00 this is a substantial avoidance in directly accountable oil imports of US 560—00 or so in avoided imports!

    [[Why do I say petro-Diesel you may ask? Simply put Diesel (Gottlieb Diesel from Germany) had not evaluated making his fuel from oil in the late 19th Century because it hadn’t been thought of, and so his fuel was derived from plant oils, and when the spark less ignition sequence engine he developed was trialled and demonstrated in Paris he was asked to use Peanut-Oil as the fuel. The Engine became the Diesel Engine and the fuel became known as Diesel. Making Diesel from plastics is simple and involves breaking down some of the chemical bonds and evening out the chain of carbon-hydrogen-oxygen atoms so that you then get a relatively inexpensive fuel. If these plastics are thrown away then they become a useful source of raw material to make this Replacement Diesel fuel which will have almost identical chemical form as an oil-based petro-Diesel. When the Oil Companies refine oil to make gasoline (or petrol) they can adjust the outcome of how much of one commodity they make. On average though One Blue Barrel of Oil (the standard barrel) will refine to around 70-74 litres of gasoline/petrol and around 70- 76 litres of petro-Diesel. (And I say around for this is also subjective and relates to the sources of the Oil: some of the lighter oils will give a higher yield of gasoline.) The remaining fraction of the barrel of oil will be converted to Avgas or become heavy oil and some a mazoot, with still some becoming very dense and potentially usable for the ‘tar-MacAdams’ used in finishing road construction and for other purposes.]]

    3] Carol you have a very good point here. All the Incineration plants which I have seen are a complete farce. They do not reduce the quantity of waste to the quantity they always state. The residues are often 30% or more. A waste containing 50% water as for example in Beijing would produce 45% residues as a waste in the grate by Incineration/gasification and even by plasma arc. This then needs disposing of to a secure land fill. The costs for such are phenomenal at around €150-00 to €200-00 per tonne (US$ 187 to 250 per tonne and they have to managed for at least 150 years because their toxic and carcinogenic contents are a serious issue. But irrespective of this they produce cancerous emissions which are discharged through their chimneys and these are known to add up to an extra (additional) 200 deaths per 500,000 tonnes of waste incinerated per year and these would be mainly young children and the aged or infirm. So for Beijing that would be an extra 4,400 avoidable deaths by adopting the process you ascribe to as converting the Recovered Biomass from the Waste to Ethanol.

    You talk about the feature that this process is one which is capable of making the Biofuel (otherwise called Renewable Fuel) Ethanol for transport. This is fantastic and in fact is similar to the proposals we hear of here in Malta for a similar biomass treatment plant here. This one which has leaked out through the Maltese Press (Malta Star and Malta Today) and in the European Union EurActiv press and the Biofuels Digest is seemingly the way forward. Converting this biomass (which I presume is a vegetative mixture of plant waste and paper etc.) to ethanol is one which goes back to 1826! What a revelation this was when I found this out: I really couldn’t believe my eyes when this was revealed in a simple search of the journals! So now we have this proposal in Malta to turn 300,000 tonnes of this biomass a year in to 87 or so million litres of the fuel ethanol which we will be able to mix with gasoline/petrol at the 10% mandate required across the European Union this will have a significant effect on reducing oil imports to Malta. We now hear that there is a proposal to build more plants like this in Malta and Cyprus and beyond so I have to assume that this is the same company that is talked about in your description Carol.

    I hope that you Mrs Green are able to convey the message to Beijing Municipality that this is what they should do. I am not sure whether I can do it. I did read about the Company with the proposal and it is believed (from the Malta Press) that they have proposed to bring this plant to Malta without any investment required from the Government at all. This is I understand a plant with a value of around €90 million which would be up and running in two years time and employ over 140 people. To me this sounds ideal for Beijing. Let’s hope that this is the same Genesyst we keep hearing of both in Malta and the UK.

    Well said Carol: have you managed to get this message out to Beijing Municipality?

    4] I talked earlier about a different style of approach to the Container issue by making them demountable so that they can be transported as a flat pack. Well my design is now formulated and should be patented by January 31st 2011. This is a solution to the issue you raised about containers.
    Keep me abreast of the other answers.

  13. Victoria says:


    Your notes should be sent to Beijing.

    Although I work in the Biofuels Press industry (not in the USA but here in Malta for another Company) I am not able to make contact with China except by a dofferent route.

    Have you thought of asking Mrs Green to do this?


  14. Erkay says:

    This information is so enlightening.

    I would like to see some more information on whether the Metropolises in China and for that matter India and Pakistan as well as Cairo are taking note of this very serious debate.

    Why not send these emails to the Metropolitan City Director of Environment (or whoever is in charge) for this cannot do harm?

    Who is myzerowaste by the way?

  15. Dear everyone and Mrs Green again:

    What is happening with My Zero Waste?

    I came across this s[read sheet of information and tried to get details of the articles from Al Jazeera you mentioned. What a disgrace. Here we have the most influential Country in the world deliberating how to clean up its waste (China) and the need is so great that it is passing up the system of administration but is being ignored.

    It is not for us as readers to your Blog system to send this information to China but you could do that by posting this series of articles directly to the Beijing Press such as China Daily (or whatever it is called) and let them know that there is a serious debate taking place about their lovely county and the need to address pollution from wastes (Municipal Solid Waste and Sewage Sludge and Animal Manures which could all be turned to really useful biofuels (ethanol butanol and others) by using the process being spear-headed in the most simplest version ever currently being praised across the Mediterranean and the Middle East and that is the Applied Biofuels Malta Limited project. This uses – as we read here – a very simple modular process that does not use genetically modified organizms or enzymes that have so far created mayhem with food crops as they have leaked in to the environmenr. It uses standard yeasts. The process which this company uses dilute acid hydrolysis is the most cost effective system and returns a positive cash flow from it.

    I read from an article in the Malta Independent some time ago that the proposal in Malta will make about 90 million litres of biofuel (ethanol) from less than 300,000 tonnes per year of biomass recovered from various sources including Municipal Solid Waste and Manures, and that it has been budgeted at €110 million (say US $140/150 million) which is well and truly remarkable as the delivery of payback – on investment – thus is 4 years. No smells, noo odours are liberated since this process occurs in water that is only brought on to the plant in the wastes.

    To put this in to perspective if for example a major city in China had a waste problem it would be able to supply that area with over 50% of its transport fuel needs so alleviating the enormous smog and particulate problems that besmirch the country and which claim over 1,000,000 lives (premature deaths) a year – 50% of which are attributable to the use of fossil fuels in cars.

    Now the crunch issue…and statistics.

    China with a population of say 1,500 Million by 2035, 75% of whom will live in Urban Areas, will have over 400 million cars on the roads.

    Cars need fuel.

    The population will be producing over 250 Million tonnes of Municipal Solid Waste and 60 Million tonnes of Sewage Sludge per year as well as over 1,000 Million tonnes of other organic wastes which are currently left to rot. In addition they also will continue to import over 100 Million tonnes of other organic wastes…derived from the West and Foods.

    This could produce over 150 Billion litres of biofuel ethanol per year and that this would save importing oil equivalent to a value of over 1000 Million barrels of oil per year saving on imports equivalent to $100 Billion per year (assuming that a barrel of oil is still $100 a barrel as it is today.)

    This fuel would meet the demands of supplying up to 50% of all the fuel needed in road transport in total and with developments of efficiency and more production could even reach 80& supplied from within China.

    China could be a world leader here in biofuels for raod transport and be leaps ahead of its competitors.

    Think about ita Mrs Green.

Leave a Reply