High-pressure fragrance sprays will be installed at Asuwei dump, one of several hundred overflowing landfill sites that are the focus of growing public concern
Beijing is to install 100 deodorant guns at a stinking landfill site on the edge of the city in a bid to dampen complaints about the capital's rubbish crisis.
The giant fragrance sprays will be put in place by May at the Asuwei dump site, one of several hundred tips that are the focus of growing public concerns about sanitation, environmental health and a runaway consumer culture.
Municipal authorities say they will also apply more plastic layers to cover the site in response to furious protests by local residents who have to put up with the stench when the wind blows in their direction.
The high-pressure guns, which can spray dozens of litres of fragrance per minute over a distance of up to 50m, are produced by several Chinese firms and based on German and Italian technology. They are already in use at several landfill sites, but they are merely a temporary fix.
Beijing's waste problem - and China's - is expanding as fast as its economy, at about 8% each year. With millions more people now able to afford Starbucks, McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken and other elements of a western, throwaway lifestyle, the landfill sites and illegal tips that ring the capital are close to overflowing.
According to the local government, the city of 17m people generates 18,000 tonnes of waste every day - 7,000 tonnes more than the capacity of municipal disposal plants.
"All landfill and treatment sites in Beijing will be full in four years. That's how long it takes to build a treatment plant. So we need to act right now to resolve the issue," said Wang Weiping, a waste expert in the city government. "It's necessary to restructure the current disposal system. We cannot rely on landfill anymore. It's a waste of space."
Less than 4% of Beijing's rubbish is recycled – the UK recycles 35% – but is still near the bottom of the EU recycling league. Two per cent of Beijing's rubbish is burned but the rest is dumped in landfill sites, which cover an area of 333,000 sq m. Cities throughout the country face a similar problem.
There are more than 200 legal and illegal sites around Beijing, according to Wang Jiuliang, a photographer who has spent the past year recording and plotting the wastelands using GPS systems and Google Earth.
Together, they form what he calls "Beijing's seventh ring", where the city meets the countryside with smart new ring roads, expensive housing complexes and the detritus of consumer culture.
"People are forced to use these places for dumps and landfills. There is no better place," he says. "China has become a consumer society over the past 10 or 20 years. The authorities are working hard to solve the garbage problem, but it has emerged too quickly."
Environment authorities in cities throughout the country are struggling to keep pace with this burgeoning problem. According to the government, about 20m tonnes of urban garbage went unhandled in 2008.
They want to deal with the waste by burning it. But government plans to build 82 incinerators between 2006 and 2010 have encountered an increasingly hostile "not-in-my-backyard" movement.
According to Chinese media reports, at least six incinerator projects have been put on hold due to public opposition, including Panyu in Guangdong province, Jiangqiao in Shanghai, and Liulitun and Asuwei in Beijing.
The number of rubbish-related public complaints in Beijing increased by 57% last year, according to the Municipal Petition Office. Many residents have safety fears about incineration facilities despite reassurances by the government.
In an attempt to win public confidence, the managers of a new 800m yuan incinerator in Gao'antun set up a giant display screen earlier this month that contains real-time data on emissions of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide.
But it continues to raise concerns because there are no figures for dioxins - the toxins released during the burning of plastic and other synthetic materials. The plant has had to scale back operations in the face of public opposition.
In the longer term, the government plans massive investment and new legislation to double the capacity of waste disposal facilities, increase the incineration rate to 40% and to cut the growth in the volume of rubbish to zero by 2015 through recycling.
There is a long way to go. Currently, even when waste is separated by schools and companies, it is often just crammed back together by refuse collectors. A Beijing News report last month noted that distribution and disposal plants are not designed to deal with separated waste.
"We just compress, pack and then bury everything directly," said staff from Mentougou district waste transfer station.
Efforts to promote recycling have a long way to go. Public litter bins offer two options - marked recyclable and non-recyclable - but few people are aware of the distinction because there has not been an adequate public education campaign.
"I am willing to take time and money to separate and recycle my rubbish, but there's just no such system here," said Beijing resident Cui Zheng.
Incinerator projects that have been held up by public protests
June 2007 - Liulitun, Beijing
June 2007 - Liulitun, Beijing
Early 2009 - Jiangqiao, Shanghai
September 2009 - Asuwei, Beijing
October 2009 - Wujiang, Jiangsu
November 2009 - Panyu, Guangzhou
December 2009 - Tianjingwa, Nanjing
• Additional reporting by Han Ying