Published January 14, 2015
Visitors can smell this village long before they see it.
More than 100 dump trucks piled high with garbage line the narrow road leading to Zhanglidong, waiting to empty their loads in a landfill as big as 20 football fields.
In less than five years, the Zhengzhou Comprehensive Waste Treatment Landfill has overwhelmed this otherwise pristine village of about 1,000 people. Peaches and cherries rot on trees, infested with insect life drawn by the smell. Fields lie unharvested, contaminated by toxic muck. Every day, another 100 or so tons of garbage arrive from nearby Zhengzhou, a provincial capital of 8 million.
"Life here went from heaven to hell in an instant," says lifelong resident Wang Xiuhua, swatting away clouds of mosquitoes and flies. The 78-year-old woman suddenly coughs uncontrollably and says the landfill gases inflame her bronchitis.
As more Chinese ride the nation's economic boom, a torrent of garbage is one result. Cities are bursting at the seams, and their officials struggle to cope.
The amount of paper, plastic and other garbage has more than tripled in two decades to about 300 million tons a year, according to Nie Yongfeng, a waste management expert at Beijing's Tsinghua University.
Americans are still way ahead of China in garbage; a population less than a quarter the size of China's 1.3 billion generated 254 million tons of garbage in 2007, a third of which is recycled or composted, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
But for China, the problem represents a rapid turnabout from a generation ago, when families, then largely rural and poor, used and reused everything.
"Trash was never complicated before, because we didn't have supermarkets, we didn't have fancy packaging and endless things to buy," said Nie. "Now suddenly, the government is panicking about the mountains of garbage piling up with no place to put it all."
In Zhanglidong, villagers engage in shouting matches with drivers and sometimes try to bodily block their garbage trucks coming from Zhengzhou, 20 miles away.
"Zhengzhou is spotless because their trash is dumped into our village," says Li Qiaohong, who blames it for her 5-year-old son's eczema.
Li's family is one of a few who live within 100 meters (300 feet) of the landfill, separated from it by a fence. These families get 100 yuan ($15) a month in government compensation.
The dump has poisoned not just the air and ground, but relationships. Villagers say they were never consulted, and suspect their Communist Party officials were paid to accept the landfill.
In China, especially in rural regions, there is often no recourse once local officials make a decision. The villagers say not only were their petitions ignored, but they were warned by the Zhengzhou police to stop protesting or face punishment.
"We villagers were too naive ... we didn't know what a landfill was," said Li. "If we had known earlier about all the pollution it would cause, we would had done everything possible to stop the construction process. Now it's too late."
Elsewhere, thousands of farmers in the central province of Hubei clashed with police last year over illegal dumping near their homes. A person filming the clash died after being beaten by police.
Protests in cities are driving trash to the countryside.
Residents in central Beijing swarmed the offices of the Ministry of Environment last year, protesting the stench from a landfill and plans for a new incinerator there. In July, officials scrapped the incinerator plan and closed the landfill four years early.
In eastern Beijing, local officials invested millions of dollars to make the Gao An Tun landfill and incinerator one of a handful in China to meet global health standards. That was after 200,000 residents petitioned for a year about the smell.
"Our standard of living is improving, so it's natural that more and more of us begin to fight for a better quality of life," says Zhang Jianhua, 67, one of the petitioners.
"Widespread media coverage embarrassed the local government, so they finally decided to take action," she says.
After millennia as a farming society, China expects to be majority urban in five years.
Busy families are shifting from fresh to packaged foods, consumption of which rose 10.8 percent a year from 2000 to 2008, well above the 4.2 percent average in Asia, according to the Hong Kong Trade Development Council. By 2013, the packaged-food market is expected to reach $195 billion, up 74 percent from last year.
At least 85 percent of China's seven billion tons of trash is in landfills, much of it in unlicensed dumps in the countryside. Most have only thin linings of plastic or fiberglass. Rain drips heavy metals, ammonia, and bacteria into the groundwater and soil, and the decomposing stew sends out methane and carbon dioxide.
Regulations allow incinerators to emit 10 times the level of dioxins permitted in the U.S., and these release cancer-causing dioxins and other poisons, according to a Chinese government study.
"If the government doesn't step up efforts to solve our garbage woes, China will likely face an impending health crisis in the coming decade," warns Liu Yangsheng, an expert in waste management at Peking University.
In Zhanglidong, resident Zheng Dongxiao says the village's only water well is polluted and causing chronic ulcers.
Wang Ling, a spokesman for the Zhengzhou Ministry of Environment, said the landfill has a polyethylene liner to protect the ground beneath. "Test results of the local soil, water, and air quality, in 2006 and this year, showed that everything was in line with national standards," he told The Associated Press.
Residents say the liner has tears and only covers a fraction of the landfill.
The government knows its garbage disposal will always draw complaints, says Liu. "What they need to do is invest more money into building and maintaining better plants."
That remains a tall order in a country bent on growth, where economic planners hold more sway than environmental regulators and are loath to spend scarce funds on waste management.