EU waste management a lesson for China

Waste management can be a toxic political issue in Europe. Last month, police and protesters clashed near Naples in the Campania region of Italy over the creation of new waste dumps to end the garbage crisis that had been plaguing the city for months.

Campania residents fear that the unregulated and toxic waste disposal methods could cause contamination. Their fears stem from the fact that years of waste mismanagement, corruption and organized crime have left streets stinking with decomposing garbage. Protests have been kindled by plans to open a dump in the Vesuvio National Park, too. This became a national issue during the last general election in Italy and compelled the president to promise to clear up the mess.

The wealthier the European Union (EU) becomes, the more waste it generates. The same can be expected from China. People in the EU throw away about 3 billion tons of waste every year, 90 million tons of which is hazardous. This boils down to about 6 tons of waste generated by every man, woman and child. The treatment and disposal of all this waste – without harming the environment – has become a major problem for the EU authorities. And it’s not surprising that the EU is taking initiatives to reduce the waste generated by its member states.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the waste generated by EU member states between 1990 and 1995 increased by 10 percent. Some two-thirds of what we throw away is either burnt in incinerators or dumped in to landfill sites. But both these methods are environmentally unfriendly. Landfills not only take up valuable land space, but also cause air, water and soil pollution. They emit carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, and allow toxic elements to seep into the soil and groundwater. These, of course, are harmful to the environment and ultimately to human beings, and plants and animals.

The OECD estimates that by 2020, we would generate 45 percent more waste than we did in 1995. We must reverse this trend to avoid being submerged in rubbish.

The picture, fortunately, is not all that gloomy. The EU’s Sixth Environment Action Programme identifies waste prevention and management as one of its four top priorities. The EU’s primary objective is to decouple waste generation from economic activity so that its growth no longer is tied to creation of more waste. In fact, there are signs that this is beginning to happen. In Germany and the Netherlands, for example, the generation of municipal waste fell in the 1990s.

The EU’s aims are ambitious, perhaps because it is using new waste prevention initiatives, making better use of its resources, and encouraging individuals and enterprises to shift to more sustainable consumption patterns. The EU’s landfill directive is, largely, responsible for this change. Its targets to reduce the amount of biodegradable municipal waste and the fines it imposes on people and companies generating excess garbage are a positive way to reduce waste and ease the pressure on recycling facilities.

In the United Kingdom, the regulatory body responsible for the implementation of the EU’s landfill directive is the Environment Agency. It has adopted several ways to implement the directive such as permitting waste management facilities and administering the trading of these permits between municipalities in the Landfill Allowance Trading Scheme.

According to the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the amount of household waste being recycled has increased more than three times in the past decade. But despite that, households still "throw away" more than 60 per cent of the waste they generate. On average every household disposed of more than 1 ton of rubbish last year, 625 kg of which ended up in landfills or was incinerated. This varies from region to region and city to city, though.

So, the best way to solve the problem is to generate as little waste as possible and recycle it through ecological viable methods. In fact, London authorities are considering granting incentives to people for recycling waste. But will London residents recycle more of the waste they generate if they got incentives? Or is imposing fines for generating excess waste a more effective way of reducing the generation of garbage? It is still to be seen if fines or the threat to impose them will help reduce the amount of waste at the household level.

Italy, the EU said the Italian authorities had failed to establish a strong network of waste disposal facilities close to the areas where waste is generated. By its failure to do so, Italy had also failed to prevent the threat excess waste causes to human health and the environment. In other words, Italy has failed to fulfill its obligations under the EU’s waste disposal directive. Hence, the Naples example should teach Chinese cities’ authorities how not to manage their waste generation and disposal plan.

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