TRACES: YELLOW RIVER
Landfill construction. Hejin, Shanxi, China, 2011.
Workers unroll sheets of plastic to line the inside of a new landfill. This cavity was once farmland and continues to be surrounded by agricultural land.
Just over a generation ago, refuse was rarely a problem because families, then largely poor and rural, used and reused everything. A supermarket was uncommon and as a result so was plastic packaging. As cities have grown, urban support systems that provide public services such as landfills and waste treatment plants have been unable to keep up with the growing demand for the processing and disposing of waste.
China has recently surpassed the United States as the world’s largest producer of municipal solid waste. Most landfills are poorly managed and have only thin linings of plastic or fiberglass. These sites leach heavy metals, ammonia, and bacteria into the groundwater and soil, and the decomposing waste sends out methane and carbon dioxide. A farming society for thousands of years, most of China will be urban by 2017. No country has ever experienced such a large and rapid increase in its generation of waste; the implications both domestically and internationally are enormous.