China’s Rural Dumping Grounds

Thousands of vehicles pick up Beijing’s trash daily. Meanwhile, garbage piles up along the countryside’s riverbanks and villages.

River Trash.
Two workers clean up trash along the bank of the Yangtze River near the Three Gorges Dam in Yichang, in central China’s Hubei province.

Photo by STR/AFP/Getty Images

This article originally appeared in Caixin.

When I first rode into rural areas in northern Hebei province, I was immediately impressed with the scenery. It was not flashy, like Guilin, or some such mountainous region covered by mist. Instead, it was wide, flat, and empty. There were a few skinny trees along the side of the road, but for the most part the ground was covered by one plant, corn, and that stretched over the horizon like a green blanket.

Interspersed between the swathes of green, a labyrinth of waterways fanned out like human veins. Every mile or so, the water would take over the earth, and corn fields would give way to wide, shallow marshes with reeds and mud islands springing up from below. Insects buzzed all around. The leaves of willows hung lazily over the water.

I’d come from the United States to teach English in a small village in Hebei about three hours’ drive from Beijing. Because I am greedy (or crazy, however you choose to look at it), I decided that I’d live in the village for half the week and live in Beijing for the other half. I wanted to live in both a small town and a modern city so that I could experience both sides of China.

Every week when I got off the long, Greyhound-like tour bus and onto a smaller one that would take me to the village, I’d notice something else about the landscape: It was covered in garbage. Along the side of the road were scattered heaps of plastic cups, candy wrappers, napkins, and an endless multitude of plastic bags, their translucent folds glistening in every possible size, shape, and color. From the bus I’d see more rivers and lakes, with long, steep banks. Many of these banks had become de facto dump sites— they were coated from top to bottom with layers of trash.

I took a closer look one day when walking down the road. There were the typical items of plastic food packaging, but there were more surprising objects as well: old sandals, hairbrushes, broken childrens’ toys, sweaters—all coated in gray dirt. Their formerly bright colors were now completely subdued, as if they were trying to blend in with the fallen leaves around them.

One day when leaving school, I saw one of the school’s maintenance workers burning something outside the front gate.

“What are you burning?” I asked. He smiled at me. “Trash!” he said. I asked him why he had to burn trash. “Don’t people collect it?” I asked. He told me yes, but he still had to burn it. I wasn’t sure why. Communication in the village was always difficult. My Chinese isn’t as good as it could be, and people in the village tend to have thick accents. But the conversation got me thinking: Did they really have trash collection? If so, why did they have to burn their trash? And why were there big piles of garbage?

Next to the school’s front gate, a few workers spend their days in a little building with a bed and a TV in it. Together they rotate on security shifts. One afternoon I went over and asked one of them if he knew where our school’s garbage went. It took a long time for him to understand; he assumed I must have needed something. “Oh!” he finally said, amused. “Why do you want to know?” “Because I’m interested in garbage,” I said. He laughed. He told me to talk to Teacher Wu. “He takes out the trash,” he said.

Luckily, I knew who Teacher Wu was. That evening, I found him and asked if he took out the garbage. He laughed. “Why are you interested?” I told him I was thinking of writing an article about it and that garbage interested me. He laughed again.

“Do people come on a regular basis to collect your trash at home?” I asked. “What about in the nearby city? “No, no one ever comes to collect the trash,” he said, his tone one of frustration. “We have to take it ourselves.”

“They come to our house,” a woman who worked at the school joined in. “But not as much as they come to the city. In town they might come every day, but here they come every three days. Something like that.”

Teacher Wu nodded in agreement, although her statement contradicted what he had just said about no one ever collecting the trash. It didn’t seem like there could be much ambiguity about when someone picks up your garbage.

I asked Teacher Wu where he took the trash for our school. Was it to a processing center? He laughed again. “There are no processing centers out here! It’s just a pile. A big pile of garbage!” Again, his tone was tinged with frustration.

The next day I talked to one of the science teachers who had grown up in the village. She said she had learned to swim at a nearby famous lake in the area. She told me that there had once been a huge fish population in the lake, and people would fish there often. Now the fish were nearly all gone. She said that even if you did catch any, you wouldn’t want to eat fish from the lake. I asked if people still swam in the lake and ate the fish. “Yes,” she said. “People don’t pay attention to those types of things. They don’t care.” She told me that residents litter all the time. “They just throw their trash on the ground,” she said. “There’s trash all over the village.”

After learning that the village probably had little in the way of waste disposal facilities, I didn’t feel entirely comfortable throwing out my garbage there anymore. Only living there three days a week though, I didn’t produce very much. I figured it wouldn’t be too much trouble to pack my trash back to Beijing each week.

Every day an army of small vehicles—9,797 of them, according to the China Statistical Yearbook—drives into Beijing to collect trash. They take what they collect to transfer stations, where it is compacted and shipped in specially built containers to disposal facilities.

Recycling exists independently, in the for-profit sector. Migrant workers from the countryside sift through trash cans or make house calls to collect bottles and cardboard from residents. Oftentimes you see them riding through the streets with giant bales of empty plastic bottles, sheets of cardboard, or broken electronics strewn together on the backs of three-wheeled trolleys, several feet up in the air. They ride to the outskirts of the city, where they sell their wares to recycling depots. Plastics are then resold to mom-and-pop operations further from Beijing, where individuals clean, melt down, and process the materials.

It seems clear that Beijing’s waste management system is overburdened. For the future Beijing is looking to develop more incineration plants with technology in place to limit air pollution and potentially create energy. Many incineration plants, however, have met opposition from locals who fear that air pollution from the plants will not be adequately controlled.

As incomes rise throughout the country, it is not only residents of big cities like Beijing who can afford to buy more stuff. Rural residents now have much greater purchasing power, and many of the new products they buy come covered in elaborate, “modern” packaging. While access to new products has improved in rural areas, the means to dispose of the waste they create has not.

Most local governments don’t have the resources to install waste disposal facilities like landfills, environmentally sound incinerators, or composting plants. Even if they are able to, many local governments lack the knowledge and manpower necessary to staff such operations. The problem of “heavy construction, light management” is typical. In such scenarios, local governments are able to acquire short-term funds to build waste management infrastructure but lack the resources to keep the projects running.

Nationwide research suggests that there is a lack of public education in rural areas about the negative impacts of improperly disposing of waste. Only a few decades ago people in rural areas produced little waste, and much of that was probably biodegradable. Most of the people I spoke to expressed frustration about the lack of waste disposal in their villages. They were certainly aware that it was a problem, but they felt that there was nothing they could do to change it. The pervasive attitude was one of reluctant acceptance.

One day I walked out the school’s front gate, and instead of turning right like I normally do to get to the main road, I turned left. I walked toward an area of the village I’d never been to before. I wanted to see if I could find the “trash pile” Teacher Wu had told me about.

Eventually, I reached a river. Speckles of white light glistened above the emerald green water, which careened off in both directions as far as I could see. I looked down at the bank below me. Unsurprisingly, it was covered in trash. I wasn’t sure exactly where the pile might be, but I knew it was probably somewhere along the river. And then it suddenly occurred to me: I was never going to find the garbage dump. I didn’t need to, because I’d already seen it. There was no massive pile of garbage where everyone went. It was just the same trash I’d been seeing everywhere. The whole river was the dump.