Garbage, violence and law enforcement. A damaged police vehicle after residents clashed with police during protests in Hangzhou. Photographer: STR/AFP/Getty Images
Garbage, violence and law enforcement. A damaged police vehicle after residents clashed with police during protests in Hangzhou. Photographer: STR/AFP/Getty Images

Over the weekend, protests over a garbage incinerator turned violent in Hangzhou, China, a wealthy and growing metropolis less than an hour’s train ride south of Shanghai. The protesters have good reason to fear the half-built facility: Chinese incinerators typically emit far more toxic pollutants than those in Europe and other developed regions, often with tragic environmental and human consequences. Making matters worse, they’re usually built with little public consultation. This weekend’s protests -- which resulted in 53 arrests, according to state news media -- are merely the latest in a growing, citizen-driven movement against such burners.

The cause is necessary, just and timely. According to a World Bank report, China has for a decade surpassed the U.S. as the world’s largest generator of municipal solid waste -- the stuff that goes into landfills and incinerators -- and alone accounts for 70 percent of the solid waste generated in East Asia. By 2030, the same report suggests, China will probably generate twice as much solid waste as the U.S. Of course, on a per capita basis China and its relatively poor rural population still lag far behind Americans. But as China’s middle class expands, the per capita numbers will grow, too.

This is what makes the issue of waste so different from China’s other pollution woes: Chinese consumers, as much if not more than industry or the government, are at the root of the problem. One only need visit a Chinese landfill (I’ve been to many) and see the large volume of rotting food within it, to understand how important a role individuals play in exacerbating this particular challenge. In January 2013, Xinhua, the state newswire, estimated that Chinese throw away enough food annually to feed 200 million people; in 2012, state-owned China Daily estimated that 70 percent of Chinese solid waste is food. The problem is serious enough that one of the earliest and most high-profile Communist Party initiatives of Xi Jinping’s presidency was a “Clean Your Plate” campaign.

Chinese environmentalists have been trying to draw attention to the issue for even longer. Among them the year 2009 informally came to be known as "laji yuannian," or “Year One of the Garbage Era.” Shih-yang Kao, a doctoral student in geography at the University of California at Berkeley explained the nomenclature in a December 2011 essay:

The expression brings back the year-counting tradition of dynastic China, according to which the beginning of each new emperor’s reign resets the calendar to "year one." Laji yuannian is, thus, an announcement: Garbage has now risen to power. It governs, it conquers, and its empire is expanding.

Yet five years later, waste in China still doesn't generate nearly the amount of attention that air pollution does, except when it comes to the smog spewed out by trash incinerators. After all, once it’s picked up for disposal or dumping, the garbage is mostly out of sight.

This willful blindness is clearly unsustainable. Beijing is now circled by so many informal trash dumps that last year the city promised to license and upgrade 250 of them by 2015. But even if they could all be licensed, the growth of China's cities and shrinking of its arable acreage means that the country's landfilling days are coming to an end. Incinerators, for better or worse, will have to pick up the slack. China has committed to building more than 200 additional ones by 2015, more than doubling the installed base in just four years.

Protests against these incinerators are understandable. Past performance, poor technology, loose oversight and sub-standard regulations mean that such burners often are serious environmental hazards. But the harsh truth is that unless that public -- in cooperation with Chinese government at all levels -- commits to reduce the amount of waste they generate, the problem cannot be solved.

One approach would be to impose higher disposal fees on China’s individual consumers -- not just the garbage companies -- and allow the market to take its course. Of course, that may not be as popular as blocking incinerators. But at least it would have the advantage of holding everyone -- not just local bureaucrats -- accountable for China’s burgeoning trash problem.

To reach the writer of this article: Adam Minter at shanghaiscrap@gmail.com

To reach the editor responsible for this article: Nisid Hajari at nhajari@bloomberg.net