Shanghai down to bare bones of trash

City Talk | Lan Lianchao and Dan Martin 18 Jul 2019

Nie Feng used to toss his rubbish outside his Shanghai flat without a thought while rushing to work, but saving China from a garbage crisis now requires him to consult a complex diagram each morning.

For Shanghai has launched China's most ambitious garbage separation and recycling program as the country confronts a rising tide of trash created by increasing consumption.

But the program is the talk of China's biggest city for other reasons as well: confusion over rules and fines for infractions, and thousands of volunteers inspecting citizens' private garbage each day.

Nie examines a wall-sized diagram saying fish and pork bones must be separated from each other. "It's for the good of our homeland, but we keep making mistakes," says the trading company staffer Nie, laughing as he struggles to separate a bag's contents into bins. "We have to get this right before the fines really start."

Shanghai is piloting a program set for eventual nationwide adoption in what will likely be the world's largest waste separation and recycling scheme - and it's desperately needed.

With 1.4 billion consumers, China is being swamped by trash. Every day, Shanghai's 25 million people alone produce around 26,000 tonnes - equal in weight to the Statue of Liberty.

The issue is straining municipal services nationwide and prompting unrest. Wuhan last week sent riot police to quell protests by thousands of citizens against construction of a waste incinerator.

China is spending billions upon billions of yuan on waste-to-energy incineration plants, but protests have flared repeatedly over fears they will emit toxins. Wuhan has shelved its plan, for now.

China produced just 30 million tonnes of trash in 1980, but that soared to 210 million in 2017. That is still less than the world's trash titan, the United States, which produced 258 million tonnes. But China is gaining fast, and the World Bank predicts Chinese garbage could reach a staggering 500 million tonnes annually by 2030.

Several factors are blamed, including rapid growth and the push to develop a domestic consumer economy to lessen reliance on the outside world.

Led by the likes of Alibaba, Chinese e-commerce has exploded, producing billions of parcel deliveries annually with their associated packaging.

The government indicated its alarm last year by banning certain imports of foreign waste that it used to accept for years for recycling - a move that has upended global garbage flows.

"We need a really big push and I think the government realized that," says Alizee Buysschaert, founder and director of environmental consultancy Zero Waste Shanghai. "There is really a sense of urgency."

With a phased national roll-out set to gain pace next year, Shanghai's experience has become one of the most talked-about topics in the country, though sometimes for the wrong reasons.

Critics have taken aim at seemingly contradictory sorting guidelines and the limited daily hours when dumping is allowed, which causes problems for those with irregular schedules. There are also indications much garbage still goes into bins unsorted.

Previous city-level sorting schemes have fizzled, but Buysschaert sees a difference this time.

"The big shift is that it is much more centralized and incentivized now," she says. "That's really a game-changer because now everyone is talking about it and everyone is involved and on their toes."

Authorities say strict sorting is crucial, making it far easier to separately process recycled items, hazardous waste, compost and biomass.

But tempers have flared. A 33-year-old woman was detained recently for choking into unconsciousness a volunteer sorting inspector during a dispute about rules.

Fines range from 200 yuan (HK$227) for household infractions to 50,000 yuan for businesses, though authorities are going easy on imposing them for now.

The scheme is a business opportunity for some, with startups offering app-based garbage collection and sorting services.

True to form, the Communist Party is pushing obeisance via a public campaign larded with red banners emblazoned with revolutionary exhortations such as "storm the citadel of trash sorting."

Pensioner Zhou Shenzhu, 67, says: "We weren't used to it at first. It was really inconvenient."

But she has been won over by a noticeable reduction in flies and smells since the sorting effort started.

"The propaganda on television says we face great harm if we don't separate," she says. "Shanghai has lots of people, and so much rubbish. So much!"


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