Recyclables such as plastic must be separated from wet garbage, dry garbage and hazardous waste under the new rules in Shanghai. Photo: AFP
The city’s ambitious waste and recycling rules took effect on Monday, aiming to emulate successes of comparable policies in Japan, Taiwan and California
President Xi Jinping has urged China – the world’s second-biggest waste producer after the United States – to sort rubbish better
At 9pm, Li Zhigang was sitting in front of his fruit shop on a bustling street in central Shanghai’s Xujiahui area, peeling the thin layers of plastic from rotten pears and mangoes.
“This is so much trouble!” he mumbled to himself while throwing the plastic into one trash can and the fruit into another.
In the past, Li simply threw away what could not be sold with the packaging on, but from July 1 he could be fined up to 200 yuan (about US$30) for doing so.
Like Li, many of the tens of millions of residents in the eastern Chinese city have been complaining in recent weeks that the introduction of compulsory household garbage sorting is making life difficult, but at the same time have been having to learn to do it.
Calls for garbage sorting have brought little progress in China in the past decade, but Shanghai is leading a fresh start for the world’s second-largest waste producer with its new municipal solid waste (MSW) regime, observers have said.
China generated 210 million tonnes of MSW in 2017, 48 million tonnes less than the United States, according to the World Bank’s What a Waste database.
“If we say China is now classifying its waste, then it’s Shanghai that is really doing it,” said Chen Liwen, a veteran environmentalist who has worked for non-governmental organisations devoted to waste classification for the past decade.
“It’s starting late, comparing with the US, Japan or Taiwan, but if it’s successful in such a megacity with such a huge population, it will mean a lot for the world,” she said.
Household waste in the city is now required to be sorted into four categories: wet garbage (household food), dry garbage (residual waste), recyclable waste and hazardous waste.
General rubbish bins that had previously taken all types of household waste were removed from buildings. Instead, residents were told to visit designated trash collection stations to dispose of different types of waste during designated periods of the day.
Companies and organisations flouting the new rules could be fined 50,000-500,000 yuan (US$7,000-70,000), while individual offenders risked a fine of 50-200 yuan.
The city’s urban management officers will be mainly responsible for identifying those who breach the rules.
Huang Rong, the municipal government’s deputy secretary general, said on Friday that nearly 14,000 inspections had been carried out around the city and more than 13,000 people had been warned on the issue since the regulations were announced at the start of the year.
As July 1’s enforcement of the rules approached, it became a much-discussed topic among Shanghainese people. A hashtag meaning “Shanghai residents almost driven crazy by garbage classification” was one of the most popular on China’s Twitter-like Weibo platform.
“My daughter took a box of expired medicine from her workplace to the trash collection station near our home yesterday because she couldn’t find the local bin for hazardous waste,” Li said.
While the measures force a change of habits for most people, they bring opportunities for some.
Du Huanzheng, director of the Recycling Economy Institute at Tongji University, said waste sorting was crucial for China’s recycling industry.
“Without proper classification, a lot of garbage that can be recycled is burned, and that’s a pity,” he said. “After being classified, items suitable to be stored and transported can now be recycled.”
Shanghai’s refuse treatment plants deal with 19,300 tonnes of residual waste and 5,050 tonnes of kitchen waste every day, according to the municipal government. By contrast, only 3,300 tonnes of recyclables per day are collected at present.
Nationwide, the parcel delivery industry used more than 13 billion polypropylene woven bags, plastic bags and paper boxes as well as 330 million rolls of tape in 2016, but less than 20 per cent of this was recycled, according to a report by the State Post Bureau.
Prices of small sortable rubbish bins for home use have surged on e-commerce platforms, while bin makers are also developing smart models in response to new needs.
Some communities are deploying bins that people are required to sign in with their house number to use, and are equipped with a “big data analysis system”. The system records households have “actively participated” and which have not, so that neighbourhood management can publicise their addresses and make house visits, according to a report by Thepaper.cn.
In a residential community in Songjiang district, grocery store owner Nie Chuanguo has found something new to sell: a rubbish throwing service.
He has offered to visit homes, collect waste and throw it into the right bin at a designated time. He charges 30 yuan a month for those living on the ground and first floors, 40 yuan for those on the second and third, and 50 yuan for the fourth and fifth.
“This service will start from July 1. Many people have come to inquire about it,” he said.
According to Du, waste classification is not only about environmental impact or business opportunities. “Garbage sorting is an important part of a country’s soft power,” he said.
For China, it was an opportunity to improve its international reputation, he said. “In the past, Chinese people were rich and travelled abroad, but they threw rubbish wilfully, making foreigners not admit we are a respected powerhouse.”
He added: “It’s also related to 1.3 billion people’s health, since the current waste treatment methods – burying and burning – are not friendly to the environment.”
Shanghai’s part in tackling waste comes amid President Xi Jinping’s repeated calls for the country to sort waste better.
“For local officials, it is a political task,” said Chen, who heads a waste management programme in rural China called Zero Waste Villages.
Huang said the president had asked Shanghai in particular to set a good example in waste classification.
In March 2017, the central government set out plans for a standardised system and regulations for rubbish sorting by 2020, with a target for 46 major cities, including Shanghai, to recycle 35 per cent of their waste by then.
In early June, Xi issued a long statement calling for more action from local governments.
However, it was a long process that required input from individuals, government and enterprises, Du said.
“Japan took one generation to move to doing its waste sorting effectively, so we shouldn’t have the expectation that our initiative will succeed in several years,” Du said.
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“The lessons we can learn from Japan include carrying out campaigns again and again, and paying close attention to educating young pupils about rubbish classification.”
Chen echoed that Shanghai’s waste sorting frenzy now was only a beginning.
“What we can see now is that people are being pushed to sort waste by regulators, but what’s next? How shall we keep up the enthusiasm?” she asked.
She suggested that how well officials worked on garbage sorting should be included in their job appraisal, and that ultimately people should pay for waste disposal.
“The key to waste classification, going by international experience, is making polluters pay,” Chen said.
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There is plenty of experience for Shanghai to learn from in California, where unrecyclable waste is charged for at twice the price of recyclables, and Taiwan, where people are charged only for disposal of residual waste, according to Chen.
Taiwan has one of the world’s most impressive recycling rates, with nearly 60 per cent of its waste between January and October last year having been recycled, according to the Taipei government.
The daily amount of garbage produced per person during that period was about 0.41kg – down substantially from 1.14kg in 1997 – the government said.
Hong Kong has tried to copy the Taipei model over the years but failed, with a recycling rate of MSW slightly above 30 per cent in recent years, according to official data.
The city has recently postponed a mandatory waste charging scheme until late 2020 at the earliest. Under its plan, 80 per cent of household waste will have to go into designated bags and will be priced at an average of 11 HK cents (1 US cent) per litre.
On Friday, Shanghai officials admitted that there were plenty of challenges involved in sorting and transport.
Zhang Lixin, deputy chief of the municipal housing administration, said: “Many property management companies fear the difficulties brought by garbage sorting or are reluctant to implement the new rules.”
The administration trained the heads of more than 200 companies across the city in April, he said.
“We do find that some cleaners and rubbish trucks mix the waste, despite residents being asked to throw different types in different bins,” said Deng Jianping, head of the city’s landscaping and city appearance administration – the government department spearheading the initiative.
In the interests of curbing such practices, they could face fines of up to 50,000 yuan or even have their licences revoked, he said.