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Waste Incineration: a decade of lagging behind; How do cities build a sustainable MSW management system?
REEI 2020/06/24

In the past decade, with the improvement of China's urbanization level, both the volume of municipal solid waste (MSW) and the amount of MSW that was harmlessly treated increased. Over the past decade, dominated by traditional waste disposal capabilities and means (mainly landfilling and incineration), China's waste management has not improved to a management system that prioritizes front-end reduction, sorting, recovery and recycling, but has become a country with large- volume waste incineration instead. To a large extent, China has lost a valuable decade to construct and practice sustainable waste management systems, while rushing to scale and speed-up its development.


Incineration is dominating

Landfilling and incineration still dominate domestic waste management, with the only change being that incineration has gone from a supporting role to a leading role, increasing its share by more than 200% in the decade of 2010-2020. This shift can be seen clearly in table 1. The 2010 waste management statistics also included the exact amount of compost (1.5%), while the 2015 and 2018 statistics did not include details, using only "other" to identify. Data on the amount of waste collected are also not visible in the statistics. Low carbon and environmentally friendly waste disposal methods have not received necessary attention.


Table 1: Changes in Municipal Solid Waste treatment in China from 2010 to 2020


Source: China Statistical Yearbook

Note: 1) The data of harmlessly-treated waste volume and the proportion of incineration in 2020 is from the upcoming report "False Incentives: A Rediscussion on the Need to End the Subsidy Policy for Waste Incineration", and it is assumed that 99% of the waste collected is harmlessly treated. 2) The proportion of landfilling in 2020 is roughly estimated from incineration and other proportions.

Waste management strategies that placed too much emphasis on incineration, have inhibited the development of more sustainable waste management systems based on front-end sorting, recovery and recycling. From the investment in harmless waste treatment during the 13th Five-Year Plan period (table 2), it can be seen that China's waste management fund was too biased towards the construction of tail-end treatment facilities, especially the large-scale expansion of incineration plants. Two-thirds of the investment went to building incineration and landfill infrastructure, and only 3.7% went to sorting waste. The number of incineration plants increased from 220 in 2015 to 331 in 2018. According to the disclosed public statistics [1], a total of 114 domestic waste incineration projects were opened in China in 2019, and it generally took 12-24 months to finish waste incineration project construction. The number of incineration projects will reach at least 440 by the end of 2020.

Table 2: Investment composition and proportion of harmless treatment of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) in the 13th Five-Year Plan period (Unit: 100 million Yuan)


Source: National Municipal Solid Waste Harmless Treatment Facilities Construction Plan in the 13th Five-Year plan, 2016


The difference between Germany and Japan

Although Germany and Japan are both leading countries in MSW management. But the differences in incineration rate between the two countries shows that there is a significant gap between the two countries in their construction of sustainable waste management system and promoting circular economy. The comparison between the two approaches of MSW management represented by Germany and Japan is worth Chinese decision makers' reference when discussing the future MSW management strategy facing 2050 in China.


The large difference in the MSW recycling rate between Germany and Japan could be caused by a variety of reasons. But different attention paid to incineration is an important factor. Incineration can achieve rapid reduction of waste at the end-tail treatment, which means that decision-makers can see its results immediately; By contrast, the time-consuming effort of front-end sorting, recycling and reinventing waste management process seem less urgent and important. As long as incineration is cleaner and its pollution is more finely controlled, pursuing high percentages of incineration seems like a good policy option, as Japan clearly represents.


In the long run, however, Germany's waste management system, built over decades, not only better implements the 3R (Reduce, Reuse and Recycle) principle, but also gradually builds a sizeable circular economy and prepares the MSW industry for the increasingly urgent challenge of climate change. Germany's waste management industry employs 250,000 people and has an annual turnover of about 50 billion euros. [2] According to the German government, the waste industry (of which MSW treatment is a part of) has contributed 20% of Germany's greenhouse gas reduction targets under the Kyoto Protocol. [3] In Contrast, carbon emissions from Japan's waste industry increased first and then fell, stagnating at 37.38 million tons in 2014, the same level as in 1990 (37.95 million tons). [4]


Although both Japan and Germany are implementing a hierarchical waste management system based on the 3R principle, it is obvious that the effectiveness of waste management in the two countries are quite different in terms of recycling rate. The high recycling rate of MSW in Germany is related to regulation. The Waste Management in Germany required that untreated organic waste cannot be sent to landfills after 2005. Therefore, current organic waste (kitchen waste, agricultural and forestry biomass waste) in Germany all go through composting, anaerobic digestion or mechanic-biological and thermal treatment. In 2015, Germany treated 4.2 million tons of organic waste, mainly kitchen waste, through these methods. [5] This is in great contrast to the treatment level of kitchen waste in Japan, where only 25% of kitchen waste was recycled in 2014. [6]


Table 3: Comparison of incineration treatment proportion and recovery rate of MSW management in Japan and Germany


SourceTakashi Amemiya, 2018. Current State and Trend of Waste and Recycling in Japan. Int J Earth Environ Sci 2018, 3:155. Figure 8;Statista, Recycling rate of municipal waste in Germany from 2009 to 2017 link:

Outlook: Japan or Germany, which to follow?

Over the past decade, China's MSW management model appeared to be following Japan's lead in developing incineration, which is expected to reach 57.5% by the end of 2020, second only to Japan. But from the perspective of sustainable development and tackling climate change, Germany's example should be studied. Decision-makers are planning the construction of harmless treatment facilities for MSW in the 14th Five-year Plan. In the face of the five levels of waste management proved to be effective in Germany: The order of priority is reduce, reuse, recycle, other use and final disposal, is it possible to eventually shift our decision-making to a sustainable management system of MSW? Will policymakers invest enough in sorting and recycling facilities and capacity building in the 14th Five-year Plan? Will incineration continue to be a drag in the coming decade?



[1]环卫科技网,2019垃圾焚烧产业盘点:总投资逾600亿,“马太效应”明显. Link:[访问日期:23 06 2020].


[3]Waste Management in Germany 2018 – Facts, Data, Diagrams. P38.

[4]State of the 3Rs in Asia and the Pacific – Japan. United Nations Center for Regional Development. Table C-10, p38.

[5]Waste Management in Germany 2018 – Facts, Data, Diagrams. Figure 4, p13.

6]State of the 3Rs in Asia and the Pacific – Japan. United Nations Center for Regional Development. Table C-10, p24.

[7]德国的回收包括三种方式:材料回收、堆肥和厌氧发酵。日本的回收仅指材料回收。Recycling in Germany includes three methods: material recovery, composting and anaerobic digestion. Recycling in Japan only refers to material recovery.

Author:Zhao Ang

Translation: Chen Shikai

Proofread: Pan Yiren

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* This is the translation of an article in Chinese. Should there be any inconsistency between Chinese and English version, the Chinese version shall prevail.