By Jonas Törnblom
China’s rapid pace of urbanisation remains at full throttle. Mass urbanisation generates mass waste volumes and the physical limitations associated with how waste is collected and stored will ultimately place even greater pressure on China in the not too distant future. In this article, Jonas Törnblom discusses Envac’s fully automated waste disposal system in Hong Kong and Mainland China.
China has irrevocably changed over recent years and nothing illustrates this more than the fact that not only has it overtaken the US to become the world’s largest economy, but it now also represents 15 percent of the global economy.
At the time of writing there has been much speculation around a slowdown in China’s economic growth, which was recently compounded by the devaluation of its currency. Yet economics aside – and regardless of whether or not the pace of economic growth is slowing – China’s rapid pace of urbanisation remains at full throttle. And, with 100 million people expected to move into China’s cities by 2020, not to mention the addition of two billion square metres of floor space being added to the nation’s new buildings each year1, it would seem that a corresponding slowdown in urbanisation is out of the question.
Building Bigger Economies, Building Better Environments
On one hand, China’s rapid expansion has made life easier and arguably more comfortable for its population. However we must not forget that expansion on this scale has consequences and with rapid urbanisation, unless managed properly, there is a risk of negatively impacting the environment.
With a waste output of 300 million tonnes per year the fallout of China’s urbanisation programme is clear. In Hong Kong, local municipal solid waste volumes have increased by 80 percent over the last 30 years even though the population has only grown by 36 percent. However it is not only Hong Kong where waste management needs to become a priority. More and more cities throughout China are nearing the end of their landfill capacity and countless other cites are contributing towards ‘trash piles’ as a result of an absence of landfill regulation. Does what appears to be an increasingly disproportionate relationship between urbanisation and waste output signify that the writing is on the wall for the global powerhouse? Is China simply producing waste on a level that is unsustainable?
Not necessarily, as evidence suggests that China is getting to grips with its environmental responsibilities and its ever-growing population boom by responding with a green buildings boom. And, after establishing its ability to grow a thriving economy in what has been a relatively short period of time, it would appear that China has now also come to terms with the fact that in order to be regarded as a world-class country, it has to offer more than just world-class economics.
This green buildings boom has seen a surge in developments with sustainable technologies such as temperature-optimising insulation, smart appliances and the rapid uptake of automated underground waste collection systems. However is this surge in green building enough or is it too little, too late? With green building space in China having grown 154 times since 20082 it would seem that the answer is ‘no’. Furthermore, a report entitled ‘The New Era of Green Buildings in China’ revealed that as recently as January 2015, China had over 2,500 projects with the Country’s Green Building Evaluation Standard certification.
Addressing Urban Waste in China
The Hong Kong government has just announced the launch of a recycling fund with China’s Environment Bureau that will see $130m invested in stimulating recycling, which is in addition to the $52m already spent on waste collection each year. However many parts of China had already addressed growing waste volumes by introducing waste collection technology even before the green buildings boom.
Envac, for instance, has been an integral part of Hong Kong’s waste collection infrastructure since the 1980s and became commonplace in Mainland China at the turn of the 21st century. As of 2015 there are 30 systems in operation throughout the country, with 10 more currently under construction. Envac is a fully automated waste collection system, which uses an underground pipe network to suck waste from strategically placed inlets to a central waste collection station, typically located on the periphery of the development or where there is unrestricted vehicular access.
Waste inlets are placed at various points throughout the city or site and a fan system sucks the waste through underground tubes to a central waste station at high speed and distances as long as 3km. Different inlets, depending on the type of waste or user such as households or commercial users, ensure that different types of waste do not mix and that each waste type is directed into its correct container in the collection station. The waste generated by each individual can even be monitored by type, quantity and the time of day it is deposited.
Installed in Tianjin’s Eco-City in 2010, Envac’s launch was the result of a strategic partnership between China and Singapore. The system currently handles 82 tonnes of waste per day using an underground pipe network that’s 10,500 metres in length. Similarly, albeit on a smaller scale, Envac’s presence in what is China’s largest private development project, Sanya Serenity Coast Resort, facilitates the collection of 21 tonnes per day using almost 1,000 waste inlets. Envac’s latest installation in China will see the system integrated into Double Happiness Island, a manmade island covering 2.2 square kilometres in which 20 tonnes of waste will be transported from inlets to a collection station each day and be part of a development that aims to be a world-class international leisure and holiday resort.
Embracing New Technologies, Paving the Way to a Sustainable Future
In the grand scheme of China’s rapid ascent, waste management represents a small piece of the puzzle. However it is a piece that, over time, will undoubtedly grow in significance. After all, mass urbanisation generates mass waste volumes and the physical limitations associated with how waste is collected and stored will ultimately place even greater pressure on China in the not too distant future.
Envac was invented in Sweden in 1961. Since its inception, the system has garnered international acclaim with over 700 installations worldwide however its greatest success remains in the Scandinavian countries where it has the greatest presence. The irony is that Sweden’s rate of urbanisation is not even comparable with that of China’s, yet it is Sweden that is still regarded as the hotbed of innovation when it comes to integrated sustainable solutions. Whilst there are many impressive sustainable solutions in operation in other parts of the world, Sweden’s ability to harmoniously integrate them with – and for the benefit of – other diverse stakeholder groups is what sets it apart from other nations.
From my perspective, Sweden’s success when it comes to innovation within the built environment is down to eco governance, a notion characterised by working towards common goals and sharing data and resources in order to achieve those goals. It is also characterised by its ability to make room for new business models where both the public and private sectors can invest in, and therefore share the costs and the benefits of, new technologies that minimise any negative impact on society. This concept now underpins sustainable development in Sweden and has proven to be a tried, tested and successful model.
It is no secret that by identifying synergies and embracing an open and collaborative approach, we will all achieve much more. However with both its population and waste levels increasing at unprecedented rates, China no longer has the luxury of time that other countries, where urbanisation is slower, have. When it comes to waste management in the context of urbanisation, China has gathered a level of momentum that is impressive and much needed in equal measure. However if China is to be remembered for not just significant economic growth in the 21st century but also creating a sustainable nation and a legacy that addresses the needs of its inhabitants, then it needs to accelerate the pace at which it reconciles economic development with environmental development. Furthermore, it must boost its use of waste collection technology, fast-track its waste segregation programme and recycling schemes and allocate more resource to communications campaigns that seek to change the wasteful nature of its inhabitants.
About the Author
Jonas Törnblom is Senior Vice President at Envac AB, where he has been since 2001. An environmental industry innovator, thought leader and driver for change, Jonas has built a reputation as a champion of sustainability within the built environment. Jonas has chaired the Swedish Environmental Technology Network’s steering committee, helped to develop the SymbioCity concept, and recently initiated the Sweden China GreenTech Alliance.
1.South China Morning Post
Feature Image: China Serenity Coast