China’s War on Trash Is the World’s, Too
China’s War on Trash Is the World’s, Too
Trash is the talk of Shanghai. Starting Monday, the city required residents and businesses to sort their waste and recyclables into separate bins. The task is towering: Shanghai generates more than 9 million metric tons of garbage every year and -- like every other city, town and village in China -- it lacks even a rudimentary municipal recycling system.
And China isn’t alone. As of 2018, humans were on track to generate waste at more than double the rate of population growth through 2050, with most of the growth coming in developing countries. Whether or not those nations can establish formal recycling systems will be crucial to managing the world’s trash and minimizing its environmental consequences. China’s experience will be a first, critical test.
In most of the world, profits rather than environmental concerns drive recycling, which is largely performed by self-employed waste pickers. It's a dirty job but highly efficient: In Nanjing, for example, a city of 9 million people located 200 miles from Shanghai, waste pickers recovered as much as 80% of the city's recyclables (around 500,000 metric tons) as recently as 2015.
Without those workers, as Beijing learned to its chagrin when it pushed out hundreds of thousands of waste pickers in advance of the 2008 Olympics, the trash simply piles up. Unfortunately, as countries become more affluent, waste picking as a profession is becoming less attractive. Better-paying job opportunities exist, while affluent homebuyers are naturally reluctant to have folks rummaging around in their garbage. Cities, too, are pushing out the small, unattractive recycling businesses that buy from waste pickers and sustain the informal industry.
As far back as 2000, the Chinese government foresaw this problem and designated eight cities, including Shanghai, to pilot municipal recycling programs. They all failed miserably. Not only did the cities lack the equipment and facilities to recycle, residents were given no incentives to sort their trash or education in why it was so important. This ignorance persists. A 2018 survey of 3,600 residents of major Chinese cities found that nearly three-quarters could not identify how to properly sort their trash for recycling.
Regardless, the government is trying again. In 2017, China's powerful policy-making State Council announced a plan to promote "garbage sorting" in China's major cities. Specifics were left to local officials and, over the last two years, several have embarked on modest pilot programs.
Shanghai's new program is the most visible and extensive municipal recycling initiative ever attempted in China. Under the plan, citizens are required to sort their trash into four separate categories: food waste, recyclables, hazardous wastes (such as batteries and light bulbs) and "residual wastes" (which include everything from floor sweepings to pottery).
Importantly, the system in Shanghai is uniquely public and punitive. Residents can only dispose of waste during certain hours, ensuring that neighbors will see who is and who isn’t sorting properly. They must empty food waste into public bins without using bags, so everyone can also see what they’re throwing away. Fines of up to 200 yuan, roughly $30, await those who don’t sort. And officials threaten to cut off garbage collection for whole communities if they don’t abide by the rules.
At the same time, Shanghai has spent weeks using every possible propaganda tool at its disposal, from social media to local and even national newspapers, to explain how and why residents should recycle. On Sina Weibo, China's Twitter-like social media service, the subject has repeatedly trended, with reports that the new regulations apply to foreign tourists as well proving particularly popular. Younger Chinese seem to have favorable opinions of the program, though they fear it will be time-consuming.
Far more will be required. Shanghai and other cities have yet to build the infrastructure needed to manage even properly sorted waste. They require trucks designed to carry sorted recyclables; large, industrial-scale recycling facilities; and environmentally sound incineration and composting sites for the "residual" and organic wastes. This will require years and billions in investment.
Still, the fact that Shanghai has residents thinking and talking about waste on social media, in their compounds and at home is remarkable progress. It's also a lesson to other developing countries that the first step in creating a modern waste management system is to educate the public and foster a sense that recycling is a collective civic responsibility. If the world is going to clean up its trash heaps, Shanghai’s new program could well be the model.