China is facing a trash crisis. In 2017, the country produced more than 400 million tons of municipal solid waste, a figure that doesn’t account for the vast quantities of garbage produced by the construction industry every year.
Adding to challenge of trash disposal, much of this refuse is what the Shanghai municipal government refers to as “wet” waste, or kitchen scraps and leftover food. According to a 2016 Shanghai report, approximately 60% of the more than 21,000 tons of trash the city produces each day falls into this category — almost double the proportion for New York City. And wet waste cannot be disposed of through traditional means like landfills or incinerators without causing serious environmental problems, including soil pollution and methane gas release.
To solve this problem, China’s leaders have announced plans to implement urban trash-sorting programs nationwide by 2025. If kitchen waste is kept separate from other forms of trash, the thinking goes, the burden on the country’s already overstressed landfills and incinerators can be reduced, pollution cut, and the waste itself repurposed as compost or even as a methane-based energy source. July 1, Shanghai became the biggest Chinese city so far to implement mandatory trash sorting citywide.
The rollout has not gone smoothly, however. Residents complain that the new rules are counterintuitive and inconvenient. The distinction between so-called dry and wet waste is not always clear, and to meet the city’s goals, neighborhoods have instituted new policies regarding when and where residents can dispose of trash. Yet, a long-term study I took part in with Fudan University’s Sustainable Behavior Research Group shows that often-criticized rules like designated trash disposal times and consolidated community disposal points are necessary for trash sorting to take root.
Shanghai’s current trash-sorting policy dates back to 2011, when pilot programs were set up in communities and neighborhoods across the city. The goal was to explore certain ideas and methods in advance of the broader rollout. These pilot communities generally adopted one or more of the following three strategies: adding trash cans to accommodate the different types of waste; consolidating disposal points; and limiting disposal times to a few hours each day.
It’s the latter two that have aroused the most ire in recent weeks, but based on our research, they are also by far the most effective ways of promoting trash sorting at the community level.
Of all the communities we studied that only put out extra bins, only one could be called successful. Something of an outlier, that neighborhood had a developed self-governance system and a highly capable residential committee. It also benefitted from widespread support for the program by local party members, building supervisors, and residents.
Consolidation and designated disposal times, on the other hand, have a far more successful track record. To understand their popularity, it’s important to first understand the role volunteers play in trash-sorting promotion.
Volunteers are a crucial component of any trash-sorting program. On one level, their mobilization is proof of the importance the state attaches to trash sorting, helping convince residents to treat the program as a civic duty. On another, by making in-person visits to promote the new system, they pressure residents to act responsibly. They also help community leaders monitor disposal points during peak hours, showing other residents how to sort their trash, as well as encouraging and admonishing their neighbors to do a better job.
The more disposal points there are in a community, the harder it is to cover them all with volunteers, especially if their numbers are limited. This hampers their effectiveness and is one reason why so many communities have centralized trash drop-offs at a single, easy-to-monitor site.
The argument in favor of restricting trash disposal to certain designated times — usually a few hours in the morning and early evening — follows the same logic. It’s hard to monitor sites all day, but when volunteers aren’t around, residents often revert to their old habits. And if residents sense a lack of commitment on the part of their peers, they may grow disillusioned with the program, further reducing efficiency.
The combination of consolidation and designated disposal times prevents residents from taking shortcuts. If residents see tangible evidence that the program is working, they’re generally more willing to take part. Naturally, once residents learn good trash-sorting habits and volunteer monitors are no longer necessary, communities can always readjust or loosen the rules.
Much of the current opposition to trash sorting is the result of poor communication. The abrupt jump from no trash-sorting rules to consolidated disposal points and designated times — in many cases without a transitional period — has left many confused and out of sorts. In addition, residents’ lack of familiarity with the program has caused some to view trash sorting as cumbersome and messy. It’s important for community officials to talk to residents before rolling out new policies, and to set up resident-centric infrastructure like rain covers, lights, and wash basins.
In truth, once residents are used to trash sorting, it will cease to be a burden. And it’s worth noting that, despite what many think, residents don’t have to achieve 100% accuracy. The current fine scheme targets those who refuse to sort at all, not those who make honest mistakes.
At the same time, the city government should take steps to increase transparency in the trash-sorting process, in part by opening current trash handling facilities to the public. This will help reassure residents that their added workload has meaning and that the government is handling sorted trash effectively, rather than simply dumping it all into the same landfill.
Many Shanghai residents don’t quite understand how serious the city’s — and the country’s — trash problems have become. A key principle of environmental management is to take responsibility for the environmental damage we cause. The current trash crisis is our problem, and it’s up to all of us to solve it.
The above article was first published on Zhishifenzi and has been adapted and republished with the author’s permission. The original can be found here.
Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Lu Hua and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhang Zeqin.
(Header image: Volunteers dressed as garbage bins promote trash sorting at a park in Shanghai, March 30, 2019. Yang Yi/VCG)