Garbage Classification is the New Fashion In China

by Jonathan Hunt,Lily Xie published on April 22, 2020

Never in the metropolis of Shanghai, a home of 25 million residents, have there been so much enthusiasm, passion and participation around the subject of ‘garbage’. Starting from 1 July 2019, the city’s lately issued ‘Regulation of Shanghai Municipal Household Waste Management’ will take effect. Discussions and posts are everywhere on the newspaper, TVs and the Internet including social media platforms like WeChat, WeiBo and Douyi, demonstrating the public’s eagerness to learn about how to sort out trash correctly. According to the new Regulation, waste will be collected separately under four categories, namely recyclables, hazardous waste, ‘wet’/ kitchen and ‘dry’/other waste. Individuals and businesses that fail to follow it are liable to fines. The regulation also bans hotels and caterers from offering one-off products such as toothbrushes, shower caps and chopsticks. All the courier companies should use digital orders and environment-friendly materials for packaging. Government and public institutions are not allowed to use disposable cups in the office and should give priority in purchasing commodities made from recycled materials. Waste management is listed as one performance indicator for officials.

Shanghai has the similar amount of population of Australia. Each day over 25,000 tons of garbage is produced in the city, posing serious threats to the environment and increasingly challenging the city’s capacity for waste management. Most of the trash was treated at the city’s landfills or incinerators. The city aims to have 35% of its waste recycled by the end of 2020. Beijing, Guangzhou and Hangzhou all have similar regulations in place in recent years. Putting into perspectives, the total population of the above-mentioned four cities is more than that of the United Kingdom, with the 2018 GDP more than the sum of Russia.

Among all hurray and cheers, please allow me to turn the spotlight to a vast yet almost invisible network of people- the rag and bone man or the informal garbage collectors. On bustling streets in China, you often see men or women ride their tricycles, carrying a huge amount of boxes cleverly bounded together and offering door-to-door collection services for all kinds of domestic castoff, ranging from second-hand furniture, electronics, cartons, cans, glasses and plastic bottles. Before the government’s law enforcement, they offer the most effective way for waste management, recycling 90% of recyclables. This rate is much higher than any developed countries. It’s said even in the city of Beijing alone, there are 150,000 of them. Most of them are the aged, poor and homeless. They rely on picking up and selling recyclables to earn a living and raise family. With systemic consolidation and innovation, the informal waste collectors could drive the future of recycling. Yet they commonly suffer the lack of social recognition and material assurance such as the lowest income guarantee and medical insurance.

Policies, public education and community engagement are just one of the many levers of change for China to lead on waste management. At the end of last year, President Xi said ‘Garbage classification is the new fashion’. Neglected and despised by many in many cultures, the sector needs to be revitalized and transformed. It holds key to tackle UN’s Sustainability Development Goals challenges including inequality, poverty alleviation, climate change, urbanization and women empowerment. Furthermore, it offers huge opportunities for many. Entrepreneurs, investors, start-ups, governments, social workers, low-income earners, digital tech pioneers all have a role to play to generate jobs, create prosperity and bolster circularity in the waste economy. There are no ‘waste’ in nature. Imagine if the whole world could come up with all the technologies and solutions to recycle every stream and close the loop of waste.

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