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Characterisation of municipal solid waste and

its recyclable contents of Guangzhou
Impact Factor: 1.3 DOI: 10.1177/0734242X0101900603 Source: PubMed





Shan Shan Chung

Chi Sun Poon

Hong Kong Baptist University

The Hong Kong Polytechnic University




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Waste Management & Research

Characterisation of municipal solid waste and its recyclable contents of Guangzhou

Shan-Shan Chung and Chi-Sun Poon
Waste Manag Res 2001; 19; 473
DOI: 10.1177/0734242X0101900603
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Copyright ISWA 2001

Waste Management & Research

ISSN 0734242X

Characterisation of municipal solid waste and its

recyclable contents of Guangzhou
Waste characteristics are essential data for waste disposal facilities planning and waste management policy formulation. However, waste composition studies are rarely
carried out in mainland Chinese cities and even when it
does, the methodologies used are not stringent. A yearlong field survey on the physical components of waste
and the recyclable in the waste stream has been conducted in Guangzhou to fill the information gap and to
provide further experience for waste characterization
study in mainland China. It was found that the ash content in the waste stream has decreased considerably. But
the proportion of plastic materials in the waste stream
has increased and is now comparable to its more urbanized cities. Although this lends support to the recent
controls on expanded polystyrene food containers
implemented by the Guangzhou environmental protection bureau, more detailed analysis shows that the focus
should not only be on disposable food containers, but
also on film plastic waste. Furthermore, the abundance
of composite materials in the waste stream solicits attention from the waste management authority to step up
the monitoring of their generation pattern and to consider imposing control measures.

Waste characteristics, including both the physical and
chemical compositions, are essential data for designing
appropriate pollution control measures in the waste disposal facilities and for waste management policy formulation and evaluation. Waste recycling in particular is
material specific and has high specifications on the
homogenity of the waste materials. Composites, such as
liquid paper board1, composing more than one type of

Shan-Shan Chung
Chi-Sun Poon
Research Centre for Urban Environmental Technology and
Management, Department of Civil and Structural Engineering,
The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hung Hom, Hong
Kong, China
Keywords Waste composition, recyclable contents, consumer
batteries, waste characterisation study, composite materials,
recyclability of waste, Guangzhou, mainland China

Corresponding author: C. S. Poon, Research Centre for Urban

Environmental Technology and Management, Department of
Civil and Structural Engineering, The Hong Kong Polytechnic
University, Hung Hom, Hong Kong, China
Received 05 May 2000, accepted in revised form 02 March 2001

generic material, would generally be more costly to

recycle than other non-composite wastes. Waste-toenergy is another treatment method that requires knowledge of moisture contents and the make-up of the waste
streams. However, the waste characteristics of a city are
not always available in mainland China owing to the lack
of funding to carry out appropriate field studies and the
lack of awareness among local waste management officials of its importance.

This is a formal term for paper board containers which are also lined with film plastics and/or metal foil.

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S. S. Chung, C. S. Poon

This paper presents the findings of a year-long field

study on waste characterisation in Guangzhou and compares the results with those of the Hong Kong Self
Administrative Region (HK), Dublin (in Ireland) and
Heidelberg (in South Africa). The data of these three
cities were selected for comparison mainly for the reason
that the respective field characterisation study methodologies were also known either through published literature or through direct communication with the relevant
authorities. As the data and the methodologies form a
complete set and they have higher reference values. In
addition to the presentation of findings and the comparison, the limitations of waste characterisation in the field
will be acknowledged and suggestions to improve on the
methodology of waste characterisation studies will be
made. The last two sections of this paper discuss how the
findings and experience gained in this research study can
be applied in waste management in Guangzhou.

Approaches in characterising municipal solid

waste and their pros and cons
Municipal solid waste (MSW) can be characterised by its
physical or chemical parameters. To characterise the
chemical fraction of the waste stream, representative
samples are to be prepared (careful mixing, grinding and
pulverising) for laboratory chemical analysis. However,
the metal fraction of the waste samples cannot be
addressed adequately by this method. Thus, Brunner &
Ernst (1986) suggested assessing the chemical composition of the waste stream from the products of waste treatment process that involves substantial chemical
transformation of the waste matters, such as incineration, refuse-derived fuel processing and composting.
However, in a number of countries, including mainland
China, most of these processes or facilities are not in use
or found.
More commonly, waste management authorities characterised MSW by its physical contents. There are three
different ways to do this. One that is adopted by the
United State Environmental Protection Agency is the
material flows approach. In this approach, the waste
content and waste quantity are estimated on production
data for materials and products with adjustments for
imports, exports, recycling and product lifetimes
(Franklin Assoicates 1999). An inherent drawback of
this approach is that product residues associated with


other items (such as unconsumed fluid in containers) are

not accounted for. This is particularly a concern if the
moisture contents of waste are crucial data to the users.
In addition, this approach also fails to address variations
in local waste generation conditions (Martin et al. 1995).
Waste characterisation can also be obtained by conducting questionnaire surveys on waste generators.
Although this is a lower cost alternative to other
approaches, researchers generally regard questionnaire
estimates as no more than an educated guess (Yu &
Maclaren 1995). An earlier study of Yu & Maclaren
(1995) showed that waste composition data on industrial waste obtained from questionnaire surveys correlates
poorly with field data.
Methodology review of the field characterisation
approach and its pros and cons

The last one is the field characterisation approach. This

is the most direct and often the only way to get to know
the waste stream, especially in small to medium-sized
open economies. As a result, it is more widely adopted.
Yet, a commonly recognised sample selection process to
minimise sampling bias does not exist.
A review of the required size of each sample extracted
for characterisation in the survey shows that there are
wide variations in practices. Tchobanoglous et al. (1993)
and Martin et al. (1995) suggested that each unit of the
sample should be about 91 kg while ERRA (1993) recommended a larger unit size of 100-200 kg. In South
Africa, each waste sample taken by Blight et al. (1999)
weighed from 20-30 kg or 85 litre in volume. Focusing on
a relatively small Irish community, Dennison et al.
(1996a, 1996b) were able to sort all the waste that had
been arranged to be delivered to the study site. In Hong
Kong and Germany, samples were extracted by volume.
One cubic metre of solid waste (average 190 kg) was
measured in Hong Kong (EPD 2000, pers. comm.) and
1.1 cubic metre was used as the extraction standard for
each sample of waste in Germany (Federal Ministry for
Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety
In Germany, the Federal Ministry for Environment
and Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (1993)
recommended a sampling time frame of 5 consecutive
seasons, with every sampling period consisting of 7 consecutive days, sampling about 5 to 7 tonnes of waste per
week for domestic waste. Similarly, the ERRA (1993)

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Characterisation of municipal solid waste and its recyclable contents of Guangzhou

recommended that to give the annual estimate, waste

analysis studies have to be carried out at three-monthly
intervals wherever budgetary and operational factors
allow. It also recommended that the sampling size should
vary according to the size of the population but with at
least 0.5 tonnes of waste to be sampled at each study
interval and up to 12.5 tonnes of waste if the number of
households at the population exceeds 50,000. Martin et
al. (1995), on the other hand, found that analysing 25
random samples, with each weighted at their recommended fig., would give adequately accurate approximation at 2% error and 95% confidence level.
The sampling plans for a number of research studies
carried out in Chinese and European cities are also quite
different from the ones suggested above. Dennison et al.
(1996a, 1996b) carried out a waste characterisation
study by performing field sorting on 57.1% of the target
households in their research (or 12 tonnes of waste in
aggregation) in just one season (autumn/winter period).
In Heidelberg, Blight et al. (1999) conducted waste characterisation studies in all four seasons of the year2. In
Hong Kong, the characterisation study for the city average is obtained by field sorting on a 6-month interval at
two climatic seasons (summer and winter), but analysing
a larger number of samples. Usually, about 300 to 320
samples, adding up to 59 tonnes of waste, were analysed
in a year (EPD 2000). In Dongguan, a medium-sized city
in South China, the two most recent waste composition
studies were carried out in 1993 and 1995. In the 1993
study, six samples weighing about 0.6 tonnes in total
were randomly extracted for composition determination
and were analysed over a period of three consecutive
days in June, i.e. summer time (Lu 2000, pers. comm.).
In the 1995 study, again only six samples were analysed
(Zheng 1997, pers. comm.). Concerning sample extraction, ERRA (1993) and Tchobanoglous et al. (1993) proposed using the coning and quartering method in
extracting waste samples. The variation in these proposed and adopted procedures suggests that waste characterisation approaches are set out in accordance with
the availability of budget and the unique social and customary practices.
Other than the lack of a standard sampling framework, there are operational limitations in the field char-

acterisation approach. Sorting of waste with the presence of moisture means that small fragmented objects,
such as ashes, are likely to stick to the larger and entire
waste items. Thus, the resulting readings are likely to
overrepresent entire items but underrepresent smaller
waste items. However, this approach has several obvious
advantages over other appoaches. It can offer data on
specific waste streams and it does not require data on the
production sector and the ingress and egress of goods
and products for a place as in the material flow approach.
It also gives researchers firsthand data on the state of
waste and recyclable arisings of a place.

Limitations of previous waste composition

analysis in Guangzhou and objectives of
the present study
Guangzhou is the capital city of the Guangdong
province. It is situated in the southern part of the
Peoples Republic of China. It has four distinct climatic
seasons with the wet seasons being in summer months.
As of 1998, it has a population of 3.99 million and a per
capita GDP of RMB 32,514 per year3 (Guangzhou
Yearbook 1999).
In mainland China, waste characteristics are not considered important and waste characterisation studies are
accorded low priority in view of general budget constraints. In a lot of mainland Chinese cities, waste characterisation study, if carried out at all, is conducted on an
ad hoc basis, using single season data to represent a yearround situation. Yet, the technical memorandum
released by the Chinese Ministry of Construction (1988)
required the waste composition to be known before
designing and constructing landfills.
A number of limitations are found with regard to the
previous waste composition analyses in Guangzhou.
First, they were only occassionally carried out owing to
budget constraints and generally the data of only one
sampling period (covering one season only) were used to
represent a years waste composition (see Guangzhou
Environmental Health Institute 1996 and Lei 1997).
Second, researchers of past waste composition analyses
took samples from both selected waste collection points
at residential districts and at landfills. The data were

The aggregated amount of waste sorted was not reported.


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S. S. Chung, C. S. Poon

Table 1. Details of the sampling plan

Jan, 1999 (Spring)
No. of samples from each administrative district
Total no. of samples
Total weight for the samples prior to sorting (kg)
Total weight of the waste sorted (kg)
No. of days for the field study


then compiled to form one data set to represent a single

year. This ignores the fact that waste scavenging activities take place at all levels of the waste collection process
(see Chung & Poon 1998). As a result, waste at the landfills is generally scavenged more intensively than waste at
the waste collection points. Direct aggregation of the
waste composition data from two different waste collection levels has obscured the effect of waste scavenging in
the waste stream and the data will also have the recyclable portion overrepresented. Third, past studies only
surveyed the generic composition of the waste matter
but did not give information on the recyclable contents
and the recyclability of the materials is assumed on the
basis of their generic material types. Therefore, the
potential of recycling as a tool to reduce disposal waste
stream is not clearly known.
In view of these limitations, a full-year study was
carried out by the authors in collaboration with the
Zhongshan University of Guangzhou in 1999 to determine the percentage distribution of waste, recyclable
components and the moisture contents of domestic solid
waste in Guangzhou. The material flows approach is not
used as there is no detailed record of the flow of goods
and products in and out of the city. Also, in view of the
absence of incineration, refuse-derived fuel and composting plant in Guangzhou, deriving the chemical fractions
of the waste in Brunner & Ernsts (1985) approach is also
not an option. The traditional handsorting field characterisation of the physical composition of MSW is, therefore, the only feasible approach in the case of Guangzhou.
The findings and the lessons learnt from the study should
provide relatively reliable and updated data for the preparation of waste management plans for Guangzhou.

May, 1999 (Summer)


Oct, 1999 (Autumn)


Dec, 1999 (Winter)


Sampling plan

The sampling plan should be designed to capture representative waste samples. Theoretically, the number of
samples for field determination of waste characterisation
depends on the variation in the waste composition of
each sample in the sampling point. With thorough mixing, even a small number of samples can reliably reflect
the percentage composition of the waste stream. In reality, however, ideal conditions are hard to find. Owing to
seasonal, demographic and customary factors4, waste
receiving at different points of time at the reception
facility may vary considerably. Thus, the timing of the
survey must be such that the main variations within the
designed research timeframe are captured but does not
include the one-off erratic cases. In addition, the determination of sample size also depends on the budget availability of the relevant authority.
In view of the lack of common consensus among
waste management practitioners and researchers in the
timing of the study and the sample size, and taking into
consideration the large seasonal range in the humidity of
the South China region, the authors decided to conduct
sampling in all four seasons. Field characterisation studies were carried out in four different periods, namely,
January, May, September and December of 1999, to find
out the representative composition and moisture contents of the waste streams for the four seasons. Each field
study period lasted two to three consecutive days. In
order to obtain samples that would be typical of all the
administrative districts in Guangzhou, an equal number
of samples5 were taken from the waste stream of each of
the eight administrative districts.

4Waste composition is influenced by customary practices in the following ways: i) the generation of greater amount of fruit skins, such as water
melon skins, in summer; ii) the generation of more textile waste and waste of durable goods during the late winter months prior to the Chinese
New Year; and iii) a greater amount of food and packaging waste is likely to be generated during early spring time soon after the Chinese New
Year and in mid-autumn after the Mid-Autumn Festival.
5The actual residential/industrial/commercial mixes of waste among the eight districts are not known by the waste management authorities of
Guangzhou. Thus, an equal number of samples were taken from each district and the data from each district is also given an equal weight in
working out the total waste composition.


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Characterisation of municipal solid waste and its recyclable contents of Guangzhou

The sample selection process started with selecting

the residential refuse collection points (they are also
called huan wei zhan, literally, environmental hygiene
stations, in mainland China). Two to six refuse collection points in the residential areas from each administrative district were randomly selected. The staff of the
selected refuse collection points were instructed not to
dispose of the waste in the normal location but at the
surveying field during surveying periods. A total of 160
loads of waste were sorted in the four field studies.
Table 1 states the details of the sampling plan for this
study. With the additional resources from the
Municipal Environmental Health Bureau of
Guangzhou, the study was able to expand the total
number of samples from 16 to 48 for the summer,
autumn and winter studies. The field work was carried
out at the Li Keng landfill, one of the two landfills in
Guangzhou. The Li Keng landfill was chosen as it
accommodates the majority of the solid waste in
Guangzhou and, thus, reducing the need for the refuse
collection vehicle drivers to change routing.
About 6.6% of the waste (the discrepancy between
the weight of the sample before and after sorting of the
samples) taken was not sorted due to the following
i. Wind blown error: since the sorting process was carried
out in the open, when wind is strong at times, especially during January and December, part of the sample,
especially the lighter portion, was blown away. It was
observed that film plastics were the most susceptible
materials to this cause. Paper waste, generally wetted,
was less affected. But it is believed that this is not a main
ii. Water loss error: evaporation and draining away of
leachate or fluid remaining in the waste matters were
the causes;
iii.Non-domestic waste: despite careful selection of sampling points, clinical wastes were found in the waste
samples. This is due to the presence of small state-run
out-patient clinics in the residential areas and the clinical waste was handled together with domestic waste.
Since clinical waste is out of the scope of our research,
they were ignored in the subsequent weighing of individual materials causing a discrepancy between the
extracted and sorted waste; and
iv. Human error: First, some sorters had the tendency to
keep the more valuable materials found during the sort-

ing process despite repeated warnings from the research

team. This was more prominently found during the first
survey. To minimise such error, sorters with poor discipline were not hired in the subsequent surveys. Second,
due to the presence of moisture, the fine materials in the
waste were found to stick to the sorting platform, containers and tools. Researchers were not able to extract
them for further sorting and weighting. A third but minor
possibility was the cumulative error in weigh measurement as a result of infrequent calibration of the scales.
The shares of individual waste materials presented in
Table 3 are expressed as a percentage of the waste sorted
(reported in row five of Table 1). Compared to the sampling size of similar studies conducted in Hong Kong and
the recommended sample sizes of ERRA and the
German environmental ministry, the sample size of the
present study is smaller. The residual or unknown
fraction (<15mm) of the surveyed waste stream was,
however, small and should not be a concern (see
Brunner & Ernst 1986).
Sampling process

In view of the practical difficulties in extracting the

waste by volume in our study site and following the
recommendation of Tchobanoglous et al. (1993), Martin
et al. (1995) and ERRA (1993), a sample of at least
100 kg was extracted from each selected truck-load of
waste sample.
The coning and quartering method, as proposed by
Tchobanoglous et al. (1993) and ERRA (1993) was not
used in this study however owing to the operational
difficulties in spreading out and dividing a large load of
waste on ground. Instead, a mechanical shovel was used
to randomly extract samples from the unloaded pile of
waste until the desired quantity was obtained. The waste
matters were then spread out on a piece of plastic sheet
where handsorting was performed by a team of about 10
sorters who were briefed on the sorting requirements.
Each sorting team was supervised by three researchers
from the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Zhongshan
University and the Guangzhou Environmental Health
Institute. The sorting took place in an outdoor uncovered, unenclosed area. All four sorting studies were
carried out during dry periods, although in order to avoid
rainy days, sorting studies were postponed for a number
of times throughout the summer survey.
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S. S. Chung, C. S. Poon

Characterisation process

Table 2. Categorisation of waste and recyclables

A major step in a waste characterisation survey is to

decide how the waste shall be categorised. The classification system used should be able to provide adequate
information for waste policy formulation and should also
be able to allow instant field identification. A principle
used in physical classification of waste is to group waste
types by the generic material types (such as plastics,
paper, textile, metals, glass, etc) of which the waste is
made up. In Hong Kong, for instance, liquid paper board,
composing mainly paper but consisting also of film plastic and/or metal foil is classified as paper waste in Hong
Kong (EPD 2000, pers. comm.). This is also the
approach adopted in previous waste composition analyses in the present study. It should, however, be noted that
in Hong Kong, some composite products, such as cameras, are classified in the others category, together with
unrecognisables and the less commonly found materials,
such as leather (EPD 2000, pers. comm.).
To render the findings from this study comparable to
previous findings, the classification system used in the
present study largely follows previous ones with the
exception of making consumer batteries a category on its
own. This is due to the consideration that Guangzhou
has plans to build a number of waste-to-energy facilities
in the near future and the heavy metal contents in
consumer batteries will, therefore, become a concern.
The classification for recyclable contents used in
Hong Kong was adopted in this study so that the findings
of the two cities could be directly compared. There was
also the intention to further sort each recyclable material according to its recyclability into good, average or
poor. Another more detailed classification system was
proposed by ERRA (1993) and was used by Dennison et
al. (1996a, 1996b) in their study.
The extracted sample was then handsorted into 19
categories (marked with * in Table 2) under the supervision of the research team. For the readings of the
waste streams, the data from the 19 categories were
then regrouped into 12 principal categories (column 1
of Table 2). Active sorting was performed on all materials, except for putrescibles. Towards the end of each
sorting exercise, the remaining waste matters were put
through a 15 mm sieve. Fine materials passing through
the sieve were classified as sand, ashes and fine unrecognisables. Further detailed sorting was performed to pick
out all recognisable items (such as small pieces of paper,



< 15 mm ash, sand & unrecognisables*

15 mm putrescibles*
Rock, stone & sand*
Ferrous metals*
Non-ferrous metals*
Rags & textile products*
Bamboo, wood & rattan*


Other waste paper*

Tinted glass*
Clear glass*
Expanded polystyrene food
Other expanded polystyrene*
Plastic beverage containers*
Coloured plastic bags*
Clear/white plastic bags*
Other plastics*

Consumer batteries*

plastics, stones, consumer batteries, etc) from the materials that did not pass through the sieve. The remains
were categorised as 15 mm putrescibles. The
40 mm and 20 mm sieves were used by the German
Ministry for Environment (1993) and ERRA (1993)
respectively to separate the fine particles from the rest
of the waste. But in this study, to be concordant with
previous waste composition analyses conducted in
Guangzhou, the 15 mm dimension was chosen for fine
During the sorting process, the contents of any containers or bags found in the waste were emptied. Liquid
was drained away and solid matters were sorted together
with all other waste. No further cleaning of the waste matters was performed before weighing. High-density polyethylene containers and rattan baskets with no covers were
used to contain the sorted materials. All the materials
were weighed with sorting containers on mechanical
scales that were calibrated each day before being used for
the measurements. The data on waste composition of this
study represent the percentage of the waste matters in the
domestic waste stream on a wet weigh basis.
Moisture contents

Separate samples were randomly taken from the same

waste load. Each sample was extracted and put in aluminium containers, tightly covered and then transported

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Characterisation of municipal solid waste and its recyclable contents of Guangzhou

Table 3. Seasonal and yearly averages of waste components in Guangzhou (1994 and 1999)
% (by weight, on a wet basis)

<15 mm ashes, sand & unrecognisables

Brick & stones
>15 mm putrescibles
Ferrous metals
Non-ferrous metals
Wood, bamboo & rattan
Consumer battery
Moisture content







Yearly average






(NB: Fig.s may not add due to rounding)

to the laboratory for the drying and weighting process on

the same day when the sample was taken. The time lag
between the sample collection and such laboratory processing varied from 4 hours (for the last batch of samples
of the day) to 12 hours (for the first batch of samples of
the day). A total of 1,024 samples were analysed for their
moisture contents in this study. This sample size was
comparatively large6.
Bulky waste

Bulky waste refers to white and brown goods, furniture

and large pieces made up of more than one generic material. The present sampling method is not able to analysis
bulky waste contents in the waste stream as they are
transported to the landfill in separate trips by general
purpose trucks if they are not already recovered in the
waste transfer process. This is similarly the case in Hong
Kong where the bulky waste is delivered separately to
landfills or refuse transfer stations. In Western cities,
white and brown goods are also considered special items
and collected on special trips at regular intervals by the
waste collection authorities.

Waste composition and moisture contents

Table 3 states the seasonal and yearly averages of the

waste composition of Guangzhou in 1999. Putrescibles

and plastics are the two main categories. As expected,

the moisture content of waste is strongly influenced by
the weather. It is the highest in summer and spring
Recyclable contents

Table 4 states the proportion of recyclables found in the

waste stream. The data are expressed as percentages
(by weight) of the total waste stream. The measurement of each subcategory, expressed as a percentage of
the total recyclables found in the waste stream is shown
Table 4. Recyclable contents in the waste stream of Guangzhou
year average
(on wet weight basis %)

Other paper
Ferrous metals
Non-ferrous metals

Wood, bamboo & rattan
Tinted glass
Clear glass
Foam plastics
Plastic foam containers
Other foam plastics
Plastic beverage containers Plastic beverage containers 0.1
Plastic bags
Coloured plastic bags
Clear plastic bags
Other plastics
Other plastics

Hong Kong, only about 147 samples are taken for the measurement of moisture content in each half yearly survey (EPD 1999b, pers. comm.).

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S. S. Chung, C. S. Poon

Fig. 2. The domestic waste composition of Guangzhou, Hong Kong,

Dublin and Heidelberg. (Source of data for Hong Kong: Environmental
Protection Department 1999a; source of data for Dublin: Dennison et
al. 1996a; source for Heidelberg: Blight et al. 1999)

Fig. 1. Composition of recyclables in Guangzhou (1999)

in Fig. 1. Among the plastic recyclables, which represent 47% of the total recyclables, the majority is made
up of plastic bags, especially coloured plastic bags.

Waste composition

Table 3 states the waste composition of Guangzhou in

1994 and 1999. Over the four years, there has been a
decrease in the sand and ash content of the waste but
increases were found in the plastic, paper and rags waste.
The proportion of putrescibles reduced slightly but still
made up the majority of the waste stream.
Such changes in the waste composition are found to
be consistent with the trend of increasing domestic use
of fossil gas fuel to replace solid fuel for heating and
cooking purposes in Guangzhou7 and with the belief that
economic growth8 tends to increase the proportion of
manufactured materials, such as plastics, paper and rags,
in the waste stream.
Other than having an implication on the physical
make-up of the waste stream, such a change has an additional implication on pollution control at the landfills.
Andreas & Bilitewski (1999) found that as the ash
content of waste decreases through time, the acid
neutralisation capacity of the landfill decreases.
Therefore, hazardous substances, such as heavy metals,

tend to be more mobile, making the leachate from these

newer landfills (with less alkaline ashes and fine materials) more toxic.
Fig. 2 compares the domestic waste composition of
Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Dublin and Heidelberg, a medium income community in South Africa. The main differences in the domestic waste streams of the four cities
are that: a) Guangzhou has the least paper and metal
contents; and b) the amount of putrescible waste is the
highest. Other than that, the waste stream of Guangzhou
is similar to the other cities compared. The former is
probably a result of the highly efficient paper and metal
recovery system in Guangzhou. The high putrescible
content is, however, a traditional trend in the waste
stream of Guangzhou (see Table 3). An explanation usually given is that vegetable produce sold in Guangzhou is
not thoroughly pre-processed to eliminate the inedible
parts. Calculations show that about 25% of the purchased fresh vegetable matter is discarded by Guangzhou
citizens (Guangzhou Construction Committee &
Guangzhou Environmental Health Bureau 1999). It is
also possible that passive sorting on the putrescible waste
has overrepresented its share in the waste stream as even
the finest sorting process will not be able to pick out all
the non-putrescible matter in the remaining waste.
Recyclable contents

The researchers originally intended to further classify the

recyclables according to the level of contamination and
homogenity of the materials into recyclables having
good, fair and poor recycling values. However, during the characterisation process, it was found that only a

7In 1994, about 84% of the households in Guangzhou were using fossil gas fuel with the remaining 16% using coal. In 1998, 99.2% of the
households were using gas fuel (fig.s derived from Guangzhou Yearbook 1995 and Guangzhou Yearbook 1999).
The per capita nominal GDP of Guangzhou in 1994 was 15497 and in 1998, this has risen to 32514 (Statistical Yearbook of Guangzhou
1997; Guangzhou Yearbook 1999).


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Characterisation of municipal solid waste and its recyclable contents of Guangzhou

very small proportion (less than 5%) of the recyclables

could be considered good. It was also noted that even
the supposedly dry recyclables were found to be considerably wetted and, thus, the surface was contaminated with fines. Three causes were noted:
1. Cross-contamination resulting from mixed waste
collection and transportation with putrescibles: paper
waste, film plastics and rags were particularly
vulnerable to such contamination;
2. The disposal habits of householders. Householders
tended to use the plastic bags as trash bags and
tended to put discards in unwanted containers before
putting out for waste collection; and
3. The presence of composite materials. A substantial
proportion of the materials in the other paper
category consisted of diapers, personal hygiene items
and liquid paper board. This contributed to the low
recyclability of this category of products.

Fig. 3a. Non-plastic recyclables in the domestic waste stream of

Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Dublin

The research team was not able to determine which of

the above reasons was the main cause of the low recyclability of materials in the waste stream. But all phenomena together confirmed that in addition to a source
separation network, product manufacturers/packagers
and waste generators alike have important roles to play
in enhancing the recyclability of materials.
Non-plastic recyclables

As previously reported (Table 4), recyclables accounted

for 31.2% of the domestic waste stream. Fig.s 3a and 3b
compare the recyclable contents in the domestic waste
streams in Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Dublin. In Hong
Kong and Dublin, about 51.4% and 50.5% respectively
of the waste matters are recyclables in the domestic
waste stream (EPD 1999a; Dennison 1996a). The lower
percentage of recyclables in Guangzhou is likely a result
of the more intensive profit-driven recovery activities by
the Guangzhou householders. Previous surveys found
that paper and metals are popular items set aside for
redemption at private recycling depots (see Chung &
Poon 2000). On top of this, another plausible reason for
the lower newspaper content in the waste stream of
Guangzhou is that newspapers in mainland China are
generally printed in thinner issues.
Plastic recyclables and plastic waste management

Management and control of plastic waste has become a

Fig. 3b. Plastics in the domestic waste stream of Guangzhou, Hong

Kong and Dublin
(Source of data for Hong Kong: EPD 1999a; source of data for Dublin:
Dennison et al. 1996; source of data for Guangzhou: authors)

major issue in mainland China. The waste and litter

from plastic products has been dubbed the white pollution. The proportion of plastic waste as a whole in
Guangzhou is only slightly less than its more urbanised
counterpart, Hong Kong, and has already exceeded
those of other more developed Western cities (Fig. 2).
A closer examination of Fig. 3b reveals that plastic
beverage containers are found in relatively small
proportion and the majority in the waste stream is film
plastic products.
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Composite materials

With the increasing application of composite materials

in products and product packaging, identification of
waste type in a field sorting survey according to the
above approach may be difficult. One example is to fit a
steel teaspoon with a large plastic handle into the traditional framework. It is not at all obvious whether it
should be treated as a metal item or a plastic item.
Another example is a household cleaning tool such as a
mop that is made with textile, plastics, wood and metals.
The textile part of a mop (after absorbing moisture) may
outweigh the wooden or plastic portion and be required
to be grouped into the rags category. But the same mop,
if it absorbs less moisture, can be classified as wood
waste. Determination of the major material constituent
(by weight) in a field survey situation has become
increasingly arbitrary also owing to the extensive applications of modern manufacturing technology. Two or
more generic materials can be manufactured to form a
new material, such as fibreglass. Modern manufacturing
and polymerisation technologies are also able to make
different materials look alike. As such, footwear made
with plastics may appear like leather shoes. To classify
these composite items using the traditional classification
framework without more detailed testing and measurements reduces the accuracy of characterisation findings.
Another defect with this traditional classification system is the false impression created for the recyclability of
the waste stream. Whenever there is a lack of further
detail on the recyclable contents of the waste stream, the
natural approach is to treat the generic material groups
in the waste, such as paper, plastics, metals, and glass, as
recyclable items. This is in fact the only way to infer the
recyclable content of waste for Guangzhou in the past
(see Lu 1997). However, such an inference cannot
reflect the real recyclability of the waste stream should a
substantial proportion of waste items identified as
paper is, in fact, liquid paper board or nappies. And
this is exactly what was found with the domestic paper
waste stream of Guangzhou. Since composite materials
as such are difficult to be materially recycled, paper is
no longer an obviously recyclable material under this
An alternative is to make the composite waste materials a category of its own. In Germany (Federal
Environmental Agency 1998), three types of composites

in the domestic waste stream are separately measured:

disposable nappies, packaging composite and composite (household appliances made of a number of
materials, also known as bulky waste in other waste
characterisation studies). This appears to be a more reasonable approach as making arbitrary judgement in the
field for most composite items can be avoided. At the
same time, users of the information would have better
understanding of the recyclability of these materials.
One of the reasons for classifying waste according to
the traditional framework is that different generic materials have unique heat values. Thus, the heat value of
mixed waste can be estimated, among others, from the
proportion of these materials in the waste stream. In
order not to compromise on the informative level of
waste composition data by deviating from the traditional classification system, the stand-alone composite
materials group can be subdivided into two categories:
composite with metals or glass and composite without
metals or glass. This can limit the variation in the heat
values of the composite materials within each category.

The heavy metal contents in consumer batteries have

been a worldwide concern. According to a rough estimate (Ke 1998), consumption of consumer batteries in
mainland China is around 600,000 tonnes a year or
about 0.5 kg/capita yr1. Since 0.13% of the domestic
waste stream is made up of consumer batteries (see Table
3), about 2,161 tonnes per year9 or 0.54 kg/capita yr1 of
battery waste are generated in Guangzhou. This is very
close to the national estimate. In comparison, Dennison
et al. (1996b) found that the domestic waste stream of
Dublin consisted of only 0.03% of consumer batteries in
1991. It appears that the disposal rate of consumer
batteries in Guangzhou has been approaching that of
developed cities and China as a whole is also consuming
more consumer batteries than some developed areas.
Since the use of mercury and other toxic heavy metals in
consumer batteries is still legally permitted in China, a
high rate of battery consumption would be a waste management concern.

Other than the errors that were reported earlier, there

are a number of uncertainties to be addressed for

is derived from the daily waste generation rate of 4,555 tonnes for the domestic and commercial streams in 1998 (Lei 1999).


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Characterisation of municipal solid waste and its recyclable contents of Guangzhou

improving future solid waste characterisation in

Guangzhou. First, although the quantity of battery waste
is known, the quantity and types of heavy metal used in
the batteries are not covered in this study. Generally,
heavy metals contents and the level of chlorine in the
waste stream are also important data for planning waste
management facilities. Thus, further studies on the
chemical compositions of the waste stream in
Guangzhou are desirable.
Second, the infrequent calibration of the weighing
equipment may be a significant cause of the 6.6% waste
loss in the characterisation process, although such an
error can easily be reduced in future studies.
Third, as scavenging of recyclables is also taking place
at the landfill proper in Guangzhou, what our study
shows are, therefore, the waste and recyclable contents
without such landfill scavenging activities. The actual
proportion of recyclables landfilled should be less than
what we have found. However, it is difficult to obtain
accurate data for recyclables scavenged from the landfill
owing to the unwillingness of the recyclable contractor
to disclose such information.

the importance of planning for leachate collection,

wastewater treatment facilities and the use of engineering measures to reduce leachate at present and future
landfills. For Guangzhou, this would mean that a higher
landfill compaction ratio, more extensive leachate collection systems and more efficient leachate treatment
systems should be aimed at in the future.

Implications on waste management of


The role of composting

Cross-contamination and household waste management


Our present study shows that the waste in Guangzhou

has high moisture contents. Visual inspection of individual waste materials at the field indicated that even the
paper and plastics are moisture laden. However, it was
not known if they were wetted by the householders
before mixed waste collection or due to mixed collection.
To find out the real cause of contamination, it would be
necessary to carry out studies in earlier points of the
waste flow such as at the door-to-door collection stage.
Knowing these would give insights to how and at what
point source separation should be carried out and what
roles household waste management education should
play in enhancing extensive recycling.

Waste characterisation studies provide information on

the properties and make-up of the waste and waste
stream at the point of disposal. A number of inferences
pertinent to the management of waste can be derived
from such an experience.

From the findings reported in previous sections,

putrescibles have been the major component in the
domestic waste stream of Guangzhou. Thus, large scale
or centralised composting should be able to achieve
effective diversion from the disposal facilities in
Guangzhou given the implementation of source separation programmes.

Ash content and pollution control in landfills

Management and control of film plastic waste

With the rapid phasing out of solid fuel in domestic use,

ash contents in the waste stream have decreased rapidly.
Without the alkaline ashes as the agent for fixing the
metals in general waste matters, it is not at all wrong to
say that the leachate from modern solid waste streams is
more toxic than in olden days. In particular, it is found
that the waste stream in Guangzhou contains quite a
high level of consumer batteries and plastics. Thus, the
heavy metals from batteries, from colourants in polymer,
plating of utensils, etc, are more likely to be leached from
the waste and found in the leachate. This underscores

From the present study, it is no false alarm that reducing the generation of plastic waste should be of top priority in Guangzhou. However, the current waste policy
in Guangzhou is dominated by the measure10 to render
the relatively minor plastic waste stream, namely, the
EPS food containers, biodegradable. The effectiveness
of the ban on non-biodegradable EPS food containers
has been broadly criticised (see Zhao 1998). In our survey, despite the ban, these containers were still commonly found and used. Our study has pinpointed that
film plastic waste is equally a concern, if not more, in


See the law on banning the use, manufacturing, and sale of non-biodegradable food containers which was enacted in 1997 (A Compendium of
Environmental Protection Laws 1994-1997).

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S. S. Chung, C. S. Poon

waste management terms. Other than advocating

source separation and greater recyclability, imposing a
product charge on film plastic products and packaging
should also be considered.

Implications on future waste characterisation

studies in mainland China
The review on the way domestic waste characterisation
studies have been carried out shows that there is no single standardised way to select samples, sample sizes and
to categorise waste materials. In the course of this study,
a number of deficiencies and limitations are noted on the
characterisation methodology and classification system
commonly used in mainland China. This section focuses
on addressing these limitations and deficiencies and,
whenever possible, suggestions for improvement are recommended. Some of the suggested modifications to the
traditional approach on waste characterisation studies
have implications in a much wider context.

Sampling points

In Guangzhou, as well as in other developing country

cities, waste scavenging is common in all parts of the
waste flow. It is recommended that only measurements
deriving from the same level in the waste disposal route
can be aggregated. Measuring the moisture contents of
different categories of waste materials at various nodes of
waste collection will also show the effect of mixed collection on cross-contamination of recyclables. As discussed above, this will have an implication on the role of
household waste management education.
Bulky waste

From our experience, bulky waste cannot be readily

analysable with normal household wastes. Where weighbridges are available, it would be more appropriate to
estimate the proportion of bulky waste in a waste stream
by measuring the bulky waste and normal household
waste streams separately.

Sampling recyclable contents


This is largely ignored in mainland China. Even in more

developed countries, such information is not always
available. Our experience has shown that combining
recyclable content surveys with routine waste characterisation studies will only marginally increase the costs of
the survey while valuable information can be obtained.
Thus, it is urged that recyclable content survey shall be
considered an important extension of traditional waste
characterisation studies.

It was found that the waste composition of Guangzhou

has experienced two major changes in the past half a
decade: a decrease in the ash content and an increase in
the share and absolute amount of manufactured product
wastes, such as paper, glass and plastics. While this is
generally believed as a sign of urbanisation and economic growth, it also indicates the necessity to set out corresponding waste management measures. Particularly of
concern are the high percentages of film plastics and
consumer batteries in the waste stream when compared
to other modern cities. In view of this, carrying out a
chemical composition analysis on the waste stream
would be desirable before planning for future waste management facilities, such as waste-to-energy plants, in
Knowing the waste characteristics is important to
waste policy making and monitoring. However, in most
part of mainland China where even the basics of waste
management, for example, waste collection and public
cleansing, are not carried out in a satisfactory manner,
it is of no surprise that waste characterisation has not
been assigned enough importance. However, with the
landfill crisis and the growing awareness of the need
to reduce and recycle, it is expected that waste characterisation studies will play a more important role in


Generally, it is taken for granted that materials classified

as paper, plastics, metals, etc, are recyclables. With the
increasing use of composite materials, a simple classification system may need to be revised. It is recommended
that the traditional classification scheme for waste characterisation studies shall be modified to include two
additional waste groups: composite with glass/metal
and composite without glass/metal. The data set will
then be a better indication of the recyclability of materials in the disposal waste streams. Such data will also be
more useful for monitoring the trend of the generation of
such difficult-to-recycle materials and become one of the
decision-making bases for introducing, if necessary, producer responsibility measures.


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Characterisation of municipal solid waste and its recyclable contents of Guangzhou

assisting policy formulation.

Past waste characterisation studies carried out in
Guangzhou and in other mainland Chinese cities left
much to be desired in terms of their sampling procedures, sampling sizes and the waste classification
schemes used. The findings brought out by this paper
should be able to refocus attention on this investigation
tool. This paper also states the significance and the
necessity of extending the scope of purely waste characterisation to examine recyclable contents at different
points of the waste flow in future studies in mainland
China. In short, waste and recyclable content surveys
should no longer be treated as an ad hoc or dispensable

assignment but be regarded as a regular operation in

cities of mainland China.

The authors would like to thank the Hong Kong
Polytechnic University in funding the present research.
The authors would also like to thank the Institute of
Environmental Sciences, the Zhongshan University of
Guangzhou, the Guangzhou Environmental Health
Bureau and the Guangzhou Environmental Health
Institute for their indispensable support given to this
research study.

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