All sorts of rubbish

Shanghai’s citizens struggle with garbage policy


A messy process...

Shanghai is often associated with the finer things in life like beautifully tailored clothes and Michelin-starred food. But conversation in China’s financial capital has been dominated by something a little less refined in recent days: garbage.

On July 1 the city introduced strict new waste disposal rules which require residents and businesses to separate their rubbish into four categories: kitchen, residual, recyclable and hazardous.

The move is the first step in a national plan that will implement garbage sorting in all towns and cities by 2025.

China currently produces at least 260 million tonnes of household waste a year, the vast majority of which ends up in landfill. The new rules will increase the amount of waste being salvaged for recycling and incineration in power plants, officials said. Even President Xi Jinping weighed in on the topic in June, demanding promotional campaigns so that “people realise the importance and necessity of garbage sorting”, and Shanghai responded with mascots, music and even a computer game to help residents navigate the new system.

The city has also mobilised some 30,000 volunteers to check if people are throwing things into the correct bins at the new garbage disposal points. But as the large number of comments on social media reflects, local citizens are still struggling with the new rules – which require people to drop their rubbish off during one of a pair of two-hour periods in the morning and early evening.

“I leave for work by seven in the morning and I am not home till late. How am I meant to dispose of my rubbish?” asked one annoyed resident.

By far the biggest problem has been navigating the different categories of refuse. Generally speaking, all organic, “edible” matter is classified as “kitchen” or “wet” waste. “Recyclable” includes glass, plastics, paper and metal items. “Hazardous” refers to things like batteries, old electronic equipment and unused medicine, and “residual” or “dry” refers to everything else, including harder organic items such as oyster shells.

Getting it wrong can mean a fine of up to Rmb200 ($29) for individuals and Rmb50,000 for companies.

Confusion reigned on the first day of sorting. Was a soggy diaper really “dry” waste? How about corn on the cob – was it soft enough to be counted in the wet waste category?

Over 600 warnings were issued on the first day by local officials and the Swisshotel Grand was named and shamed in the media for putting used tissues in with its recyclable goods.

Other cities have tried to implement similar waste-sorting systems in the past but without huge success. A survey from last year showed that many householders didn’t bother sorting their garbage because they didn’t know how or because they had no faith the rubbish would be properly processed even if they did. But the new drive in Shanghai has a greater air of determination. Landfills are being closed and incineration plants have been built. As readers of WiC will know, China banned the import of recyclable plastics in 2018 so it could focus on dealing with its own waste.

There are also more tools at the disposal of the organisers of the garbage filtering than ever before. Tencent, which owns the popular social media app WeChat, has added mini-programs to help people define what kind of rubbish they have, either by keying in the name of the object or uploading a picture. Alipay has something similar but the Alibaba app also allows users to connect to a platform where they can sell their recyclables. The food delivery company Ele.me will even pick up your trash and throw it away – although it won’t actually sort through the trash, much to the disappointment of its customers.

In fact Shanghai residents are under pressure to get the sorting right themselves, not least because bin bags stamped with QR codes could mean that everything they throw away is traceable back to them. Then there is the fact that the Shanghai government plans to roll rubbish processing into its social credit rating system in the near future.

For those willing to do the hard work, there is some upside, however: Alibaba’s Sesame Credit is offering preferential rates on loans for people with a proven record of recycling.

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