Two years ago, having just finished my master’s at the University of Southern California, I decided to make a trip back home to Xicai Village, in China’s northern Hebei province. What I found there startled me: There was garbage seemingly everywhere I looked. Plastic and rotting food sat piled atop the foundations of old houses; refuse clogged the village’s drainage pits and choked the nearby streams where I used to swim in the summer and ice skate in the winter.
In recent years, such scenes have become all too common in the Chinese countryside, as a combination of new, more profligate farming techniques and inadequate rural waste management systems have left villages buried under mountains of trash. Cleaning up this mess will take years, but the real challenge may be in figuring out how to keep it clean.
Having studied and worked on waste management since 2009, I decided to see if I could help. From 2017, when I founded Zero Waste Village, my team and I have assisted 24 villages around the country test new waste-sorting programs.
We’ve greatly reduced the amount of trash these communities send to local landfills — by as much as 70% in some villages. Yet sustainability has proven elusive. Without active government intervention, supervision, and support, we find villagers often return to their old habits as soon as we’ve left.
Traditionally, villagers in northern China repurposed food waste as swill to feed pigs, chickens, ducks, geese, sheep, and cattle, and then used the dung this produced as fertilizer for their crops. Around the turn of the 21st century, however, the demise of household farming and the rise of mechanized agriculture led many to stop recycling their food waste.
Meanwhile, rural lifestyles and consumption habits have changed drastically over the past two decades. Villagers are purchasing more packaged foods and other consumer goods, causing a sustained increase in the quantity of non-biodegradable waste produced by rural communities.
Owing to the lamentable state of garbage transportation and processing facilities and systems in the countryside, villagers often dispose of this waste in one of two ways: dumping it in their backyards, or tossing it into ditches on the outskirts of their villages. Such careless disposal practices have left many rural villages functionally besieged by garbage.
Recognizing the severity of the problem, in 2015, China’s Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development urged rural areas to explore mechanisms for sorting and treating waste and to institute composting programs. And in 2018, the State Council, China’s Cabinet, decreed improving rural waste treatment and infrastructure a “major priority,” though funding details remained vague.
That same year, the government of Xian County, which has administrative jurisdiction over Xicai, intervened to address the area’s growing waste problem. Local officials ordered trash bins to be placed on street corners and hired waste disposal firms to regularly transport their contents to the county landfill.
This partly alleviated the pollution problem in the villages, largely by shifting the burden onto the county’s now overwhelmed landfill. In the months after implementing the new policy, the amount of garbage being sent to Xian’s landfill rose from less than 200 tons per day to around 600 tons daily. This has greatly diminished the site’s projected life expectancy, while contributing to problems such as soil runoff and air pollution through increased reliance on incineration.
To truly reduce pollution and environmental degradation, waste must be sorted at its source — and recycled to the greatest degree possible. So, in August 2018, my team and I secured the village committee’s approval to launch a pilot waste-sorting program in Xicai.
The first thing we did was remove the public trash cans, preventing villagers from getting rid of their waste whenever and however they felt like it. Instead, they would have to wait for the daily disposal window. We also distributed green bins for compost and yellow bins for other forms of waste to each household and explained to them proper waste-sorting techniques. The garbage disposal company hired by the county sent an employee — riding an electric rickshaw — to collect these bins at regular intervals.
On its route, the garbage rickshaw broadcast information about sorting and recycling waste via mounted loudspeakers. Villagers could either bring their bins out and tip them into the appropriate trash cans themselves, or leave their bins by their doors for the driver to collect.
A family listens as a local official explains new garbage sorting rules in Wuyue Village, Hebei province, October 2019. Courtesy of the author
Villager participation and interaction were crucial. If the waste wasn’t properly sorted, we would demonstrate how do to it right. When families left improperly sorted waste for us by their doors, we went back later in the day to explain the new rules in person.
Once all the waste had been sorted and collected, we processed it according to type. Organic waste currently accounts for the majority of rural garbage nationwide. Just by composting all food waste for use as fertilizer, we were able to reduce the amount of landfill waste from Xicai by over 50%.
We also discovered that discarded clothing makes up a relatively large percentage of all rural garbage. We donated items that were still wearable to families in need. We sent the remainder to recycling centers. All other waste was dumped in designated areas of the village before being transported to the county landfill on a weekly basis. For hazardous or toxic waste, such as batteries or fluorescent bulbs, we set up special recycling bins in the village clinic.
Overall, we cut landfill-bound waste in Xicai village by over 70% within half a year. In other villages where we have trialed similar programs, villagers have shown themselves willing to participate and quick to learn the new rules.
But ensuring the long-term sustainability of these projects is easier said than done. This July, I returned to Xicai to check on the village’s progress. What I found was disappointing. The village committee, having decided trash sorting wasn’t a priority, no longer managed or supervised the system. Villagers had quickly reverted to their old ways: tossing out all types of waste together.
My experience suggests that one of the most important elements of a successful rural waste-sorting program is the active participation of local and grassroots officials.
For example, in Nanyu Village — also in Hebei — the local village committee has proven willing to oversee the waste-sorting program, in part because of its implications for the village’s up-and-coming tourism industry. And in Dongyang, in the eastern province of Zhejiang, the county government has stipulated that all villages under its jurisdiction must sort waste. As a result, all of the village committees we worked with there were reasonably supportive. Unsurprisingly, these are the regions in which our attempts to promote trash sorting have been most successful.
It is therefore important to establish evaluation systems that incentivize local government officials and village committee members to support waste-sorting programs. For example, the existing environmental protection evaluation system could be expanded or redesigned to account for waste sorting. Neighboring villages should be encouraged to develop shared composting centers to handle organic waste. All this should be supervised by county- and town-level governments to ensure compliance.
Fixing rural China’s trash problem will take years. But that’s just the first step. If we want to keep the trash from coming back, we need to make waste sorting and recycling a habit, not just a rule.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhang Zeqin.
(Header image: Left: A local official (in black) introduces new garbage sorting rules to villagers in Wuyue Village, Hebei province, Oct. 21, 2019; right: A villager washes her garbage bin in Dongyang Township, Jiangxi province, August 2019. Courtesy of the author)