The Garbage Crisis: NGOs’ Call to Action

This article takes a fresh look at familiar waste management issues. Given the many environmental NGOs involved, waste management has developed into a rare arena for grassroots social action. Nowadays, discussion of waste sorting is no longer confined to a small minority of NGOs talking among themselves. It is a major public topic. While the early days of the waste disposal issue revolved around environmental education and awareness raising, the current phase is seeing the emergence of multiple topics and platforms.Waste-related problems have attracted a positive response from all sectors of society, and NGOs need once again to clarify their own activities, role and position in the face of new social needs and expectations.

Early one morning in January 2009, a resident of Beijing’s Liulitun area phoned Friends of Nature (FON, 自然之友), seeking help for local residents protesting against the construction of a waste incineration plant. The phone call was taken by Zhang Boju,FON’s Director of Research. He still remembers that by the time he put the phone down, his colleagues had already gone to lunch. Who would have thought a four hour phone call could mean opportunities for change for an individual, and an organization.

Environmental organizations are both familiar with, and wary of, waste disposal issues which have long been on the radar of local environmental groups. This phone call made Zhang realize the importance and urgency of the waste disposal problem. The Liulitun resident said they had contacted several environmental organizations, but always got pretty much the same answer: “Better not come to us. The government doesn’t like this issue. If we help you, it’ll be bad for us.” Hearing this left Zhang in low spirits. “If NGOs have made residents who’ve already begun to act feel let down, that’s unjustifiable.”

Liulitun residents had previously contacted FON back in 2007 while opposing construction of an incineration plant and at that time Friends of Nature was not prepared to respond. Guangming Daily reporter Feng Yongfeng, said Friends of Nature’s director at that time had turned the materials over to him1.

In 2008, when FON was working on its strategic plan, it reached a consensus: The aim for the next five years was to respond to practical problems, and select a few significant issues to focus on. Waste management was certainly just such a worthwhile issue. After repeated debates, the decision was made to focus on waste sorting as the starting point. Against the complex background of that period, two Liulitun housing compounds became pilot sites for FON to promote waste sorting.

But FON and the residents did not see eye-to-eye or join forces on halting the incineration plant. FON’s explanation was that property owners opposing the plant had their own interests, and in part the public interest, in mind.  Yet FON saw itself as representing its members or the wider public, not just one or two housing compounds. Therefore, it did not directly participate in opposing the plant’s construction, though it could held out the option of getting involved in the broader issue. Even if this explanation sounded reasonable, it could not mask the fact that China’s NGOs were unable to participate directly in these controversial activities.

Bringing Up “Waste Sorting” Yet Again

At first glance, the words “waste sorting” may seem overly familiar to many activists. Starting in 1996, Global Village of Beijing (北京地球村) began to advocate waste separation in Beijing.  Liao Xiaoyi (the founder of Global Village) and Li Hao were the standard-bearers at that time. More than a decade later, Beijing environmental groups’ involvement in waste sorting has been on the decline. So what does it mean to resurrect the issue today?

Compared to a decade ago, waste management is no longer restricted to a small audience of NGOs. It has become a very important public topic. If the role of waste disposal campaigns in those early days was to teach basic environmental education, then today the garbage issue is an arena that accommodates multiple meanings. Today, waste sorting has already become an issue accepted by many relevant stakeholders, including the government, residents and NGOs. The central motivation of local governments in promoting sorting is to address the growing tensions caused by growing mountains of landfill in urban areas and waste incineration disputes nationwide. Tsinghua University’s Professor Nie Yong Feng,considered one of the main advocates of incineration, says “relying on sorting to reduce waste is a good foreign concept, but we’ve wavered a lot and in reality done little”. This ranks foremost among the major reasons to construct incinerators.

As for the prediction that waste management significantly impacts life and even society, Liao Xiaoyi’s 1997 article already stated the situation clearly. She wrote that China had already implemented a waste sorting and collection system in 1957. In the early 1970s, an American woman who had been living in Beijing for three and a half years wrote about Beijing’s recycling system based on her own observations which were published in 1979. While a large number of Western countries could not find better solutions than garbage landfills and incineration, they were surprised to find China then had the world’s most complete recycling system. Human waste not only provided raw materials for industry, but also provided feed and fertilizer for agriculture. Even watermelon rind was sent to feed the pigs.

Nevertheless, the early predictions and efforts of environmental NGOs did not produce much change. Only as garbage rapidly blocked doorways, old landfill sites reached capacity, and incinerators seemed like the last choice, did the public finally realize that waste management issues were important for their property values and their health. However, when NGOs and society once again raised the topic of garbage it became apparent that while many NGOs had carried the banner on waste management for years, many more had only paid lip service, and had no practical experience to draw on.

No. 1 Dacheng Xiang (大乘巷)is one of the first three neighborhoods where Beijing Global Village began to promote waste sorting. Even here in one of these model communities, Household Committee Director Wen Cuixiang admits that, “kitchen waste is collected and cleared away only five or six times a year, and then mainly for publicity purposes. Usually the mixed waste is not separated.” After visiting No. 1 Dacheng Xiang twice,  Chen Liwen of the environmental NGO, Green Beagle Environmental Institute (达尔问自然求知社), noted “in reality, this neighborhood has continually practiced waste sorting, but the garbage gets mixed again in transport.”

Discussing the reasons for NGOs’ past failures in promoting waste sorting, several environmental NGO figures said those efforts had been too far ahead of the times. Chen said that in the past the way of dealing with garbage was basically to bury it anywhere, and a regulated landfill system only began in the mid-1990s. For instance, Beijing’s Asuwei landfill site (京阿苏卫的垃圾填埋场)was built in 1994.  During this period, landfills began to form rings around Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and other major cities. The problem spread to second and third-tier and even county-level cities, and only then was waste management highlighted as  an urgent, shared problem across the country. Furthermore, emphasis on waste sorting in China differed from those of developed countries where the focus has been on recycling. China solved the problem of a recycling system in the 1960s and 1970s. The major predicament it now faces concerns mixed waste, of which ordinary kitchen household waste accounts for a large proportion.  If it is not separated, then transport and handling of waste becomes more difficult, but there is currently no experiences or models that (China) can draw on to solve this problem.

An Experiment in Waste Reduction

Editor’s Note: This section describes a waste sorting experiment in Guangxi’s Heng county started in 1993 in partnership with the Philippines International Rural Reconstruction Institute. This experiment created a comprehensive waste sorting system in the county that also involved rural education, health care, and environmental education and training projects. From 2000 to 2005, a comprehensive sorting, collection, composting and agricultural-use system was built to deal with the county’s waste. In addition, a business model was developed to make it self-sustaining over the long run.

Action is King

The Heng county experience gave people faith in the possibility of waste reduction. In 2009, FON’s strategy on waste management was to “stir things up”.  The director, Li Bo, and his colleagues, used FON’s status as an environmental pioneer to speak on waste management issues to NGOs, foundations, and the media.

In 2010, several core groups within some foundations began stepping up their efforts to raise the issue of waste. They hoped that through exchanging experiences, capacity building and supporting the work of local NGOs, they could raise awareness of waste issues and promote local action, rather than just engaging in advocacy through slogans. To encourage more organizations to get involved in waste issues, FON and the SEE Foundation (SEE基金会) also founded a joint small fund to support local environmental organizations from around the country to take action on waste2.

In March, 2010, SEE, FON and Vantone Foundation (万科公益基金会) , invited environmental organizations from a dozen provinces and cities to come to Beijing to discuss how to respond to the challenges posed by waste. In November 2010, the All-China Environment Federation (中华环保联合会)hosted the environmental protection annual meeting in Hangzhou, where it set up special forums on waste management. Waste management was once again back on the radar of  environmental NGOs.

Nationwide, there are now more than 10 environmental organizations and community organizations working on waste issues. In order to avoid the limitations of previous work – which was often restricted to promotional exhibitions, training, and lectures – the emphasis this time was on “action” rather than “talk.” NGOs have not yet completely left the earlier promotional phase behind them, but activities on waste sorting, waste reduction and disposal have spread to many parts of the country. Among the leading initiatives targeting waste disposal are a nongovernmental Policy Research Group to Limit Plastics (限塑政策研究小组) in Beijing, Beijing’s EnviroFriends (环友公益) which deals with packaging issues, and Green Star Environmental Co-operative (绿色之星环保人合作组织) which focuses on battery recycling. At last year’s meeting in Hangzhou, E-Waste Civil Action Network or ECAN, (电子废弃物行动网络) announced its launch, and initial start-up activities. Greenpeace (绿色和平)was early on the scene in electronic waste recycling. This year, two members of their team are also members of ECAN. When Greenpeace held activities in Guangzhou, they cultivated a young organization: Guangzhou Green E (广州绿E). This organization too is now very active. In southwest China, Green Kunming (绿色昆明) may also get involved in e-waste projects3.

Several organizations are also conducting waste-related environmental impact surveys. Groups in Hunan, Heilongjiang, Fujian and some other localities are doing landfill environmental impact work. Hunan-based Green Xiaoxiang (绿色潇湘 )is targeting its survey research on the location, condition, and disposal provisions of waste dumps, and the effect of solid waste disposal sites on the surrounding population. Green River (绿色江河), a leading Chinese environmental NGO, carried out an environmental survey along the Qinghai-Tibet railway line, focusing on garbage, toilets and human fecal waste in towns along the line. It submitted the survey report to the government of Tibet Autonomous Region, Qinghai provincial government, Ministry of Railways, and Ministry of Environmental Protection. In response, governmental agencies built two landfill sites and three garbage transfer stations.

In the field of garbage removal and recycling, Wuhu Ecology Center (芜湖生态中心), in Anhui Province, is paying attention to the activities of garbage scavengers. As waste issues return to public view, scavengers who sift through garbage play an important role that is often forgotten. Restrictive policies tied to Wuhu City’s expansion are bringing more survival problems for its large army of informal waste collectors. Environmental NGOs worry about the future dilemmas facing back-end garbage work, and so Wuhu Ecology Center ‘s special concern for garbage scavengers is especially significant. It has also set up a waste information website. FON has also established an online database called Zero Waste (零废弃网站), which acts as a counterweight to the promoters of waste incineration.

The role of The Waste Institute (“垃圾学院“) co-founded by Green Beagle and FON is pretty special.  The Waste Institute will promote public debate, public gatherings and create a discussion platform. At the same time, it will carry out research and surveys dealing with major environmental events. Most recently, it is organizing support for Xie Yong’s lawsuit. Xie’s family lives near a waste incineration plant in Hai’an County in Jiangsu province. His two-year old child was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at birth. Xie lodged a case in the local court, alleging that pollutants released by the incinerator contained dioxin and heavy metals that were a major cause of the child’s illness. Although the court has accepted the filing, he cannot afford to pay the litigation costs if he loses. China University of Politics and Law’s Center for Legal Aid to Pollution Victims (污染受害者帮助中心)has provided him with public interest lawyers. After that, the Waste Institute invited Xie to Beijing to talk about the case. The Institute did quite a bit of work preparing for Xie’s visit. It invited legal, environmental, and medical experts to provide professional support needed for the litigation. It also invited the media, NGOs, and residents who had previously taken part in defending their rights in garbage campaigns to participate in the discussions. Meanwhile, Green Beagle requested the local environmental bureaus in Jiangsu to make their environmental information public. Through Xie’s case, it participated in the supervision of the Hai’an County Solid Waste Incineration and Incineration Electric Power Plant, and with the help of the media and other supporters, it made enterprises and environmental regulatory authorities address the waste disposal problem (in the county).

Xie’s neighbors have also suffered varying degrees of harm. They express moral support for his actions, though most are staying on the sidelines with a “wait and see” attitude. Xie said: “Only if my case wins will they finally take action.” Xie believes he has more legal and environmental knowledge than his neighbors: “If I did not understand computers, I would not know how toxic the waste plant is. I worked two years in Beijing, which gave me a strong, steady character.” Xie says he has been lucky to get help from NGOs given the sheer volume of environmental problems nationwide. In another case, in Fujian Province’s Nanping Village, Dr. Zhang Changjian began very early to have dealings with NGOs. Recently, he sent letters to many NGOs seeking help on the local waste problem, with little response. He is hoping NGOs can conduct a survey to put pressure on local government, but many NGOs are afraid to tackle this topic, he says. They think it is exceeds the scope of their capabilities. Chen feels that in any local environmental issue, the key is to rely on local forces, especially the involvement of local environmental NGOs because localizing the issue is necessary to solving the problem in a lasting way.

Reflection: Steer Clear of Fantasies

At the March 2010 Beijing seminar on waste reduction, when it came time to the difficulties faced by NGOs, everyone agreed that the biggest problems were a shortage of funding, and few solutions and experiences to draw on.

After FON’s “stirring things up” in 2009, it went back to doing fundamental research in 2010. “Without anything grounded in reality, we felt uneasy engaging in discussions. We worry when people start engaging in organizational rhetoric “, said Zhang, raising some basic issues with these two sentences. “For example, the conception of waste. We discovered that there is no unified conception in the government at the policy-making and implementation levels. Media reports can exaggerate about a waste incineration plant, but what is the real amount of waste generated? What we think of as the “volume of waste” is problematic – it’s just the amount that’s been cleaned and removed, that’s the end process. How do you define the volume of waste?  No one knows. What is “garbage separation rate”? No one knows.”

As Zhang points out, everybody always says waste incineration produces a lot of dioxin. But how much is a lot? No one knows. Beijing Normal University doctoral student Mao Da has worked at an NGO for many years and is a core member of the Policy Research Group to Limit Plastics and FON’s consultant on waste issues. He has been studying dioxin for several years now, and produced a number of research papers providing data and information to many institutions, though still without any well-developed conclusions. This shows that fundamental research is not done overnight; it requires a substantial investment of effort and time. NGOs like to talk about outcomes and outputs, but when it comes to answering fundamental questions, there is still much work to be done.

NGOs no longer seem satisfied with settling themselves down into a community and engaging in some basic work. After protests from residents in recent years, some incineration plants have been halted, postponed, or relocated. These outcomes can easily lead NGOs to entertain powerful fantasies. But what do these results have to do with NGOs? “NGOs too easily have a sense of accomplishment, too readily attribute changes to the effectiveness of our work, are too lenient on ourselves, and even encourage this type of attitude”, says Zhang, who is opposed to the NGO sector’s chaotic alliances, and the habit of taking credit. “What are the evaluation indices when doing community work?” he asks. NGOs can go take pictures and publish collected material, but does this mean the NGO’s work has brought about changes? Basically, what relationship does the NGO have to the changes?  Which changes are the ones that we desire?4.

Zhang believes that an NGO’s understanding of its positioning and role is extremely important. In waste reduction, he believes he has already found his position.  In waste policy advocacy and in responding to waste incineration issues, he continues to define his position in the course of ongoing activities. Every person, every organization has its own orientation, and resources differ. Not all will necessarily have the conditions or desire to start from fundamental research, but no matter what their starting point or direction is, everyone is moving forward towards the same goal.


  1. Editor’s Note: Feng Yongfeng is also the founder of the Green Beagle Environmental Institute, an environmental NGO referred to later on this article. 

  2. Editor’s Note: SEE was started by a group of entrepreneurs interested in environmental protection. SEE is profiled in another translated CDB article: “The One Foundation and Society for Entrepreneurs and Ecology (SEE) as “Shell” Foundations” 

  3. Editor’s Note: Green Kunming’s founder, Mei Nianshu, is profiled in a CDB translation that will appear in December. 

  4. Editor’s Note: Zhang appears to be speaking the language of management gurus who look down on spontaneous action, networking and appeals to emotion in favor of rational thinking and action to achieve measurable outcomes and outputs. 

In Brief

This article takes a fresh look at familiar waste management issues. Given the many environmental NGOs involved, waste management has developed into a rare arena for grassroots social action
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