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    China’s Latest Trash-Sorting Push Not Good Enough, Experts Say

    Environmentalists seek more explicit guidelines and an accountability structure that punishes government agencies if recycling targets aren’t met.

    After repeated attempts to get residents to separate their waste largely fizzled out, Shenzhen on Sunday announced a renewed push to be among the first cities in China to implement a nationwide, multiyear garbage disposal plan.

    The bustling tech hub in southern Guangdong province published guidelines in the form of an illustrated brochure that introduces six categories of household garbage, explains how each category will be safely and efficiently dealt with, and stipulates that individuals and organizations who violate the rules will be fined.

    Shenzhen’s move is part of a national plan to establish a compulsory garbage disposal system. A document published in March by the central government has selected 46 pilot cities, Shenzhen included, to begin implementing the plan, with the goal of achieving a 35 percent recycling rate for household garbage across the pilot cities by 2020.

    Despite having a concrete figure to strive for, some experts worry the plan is still not explicit enough when it comes to evaluating future success. “How to reach the target is unclear, as the government does not define what a ‘recycling rate’ is,” said Mao Da, founder of Zero Waste Beijing, a nonprofit group devoted to promoting waste sorting. Instead, Mao believes targets should be set for the amount of garbage that gets sent to both landfills and incinerators.

    Mao is skeptical for another reason: “Shenzhen’s measures do not touch on the core issue: the sorting of kitchen waste [produced in homes and restaurants], which can be applied to at least 40 percent of all garbage.” Currently, Shenzhen categorizes kitchen waste as “other garbage,” along with paper, plastic bags, and food-delivery cartons — all of which is sent to incineration plants. Although the new guidelines encourage residents to separate kitchen waste from other waste, public compliance is not enforced.

    Mao said that compared with recycling and composting, burning kitchen waste is detrimental to the environment. “But Shenzhen has adopted a mass burning system, which means they aren’t taking the initiative to classify kitchen waste,” he added. Shenzhen aims to incinerate all home waste by 2018, according to local media. It has six incineration plants for household waste, and it will finish construction on three more by next year. “[Building incinerators] discourages the sorting of garbage,” Mao said.

    Shenzhen issued a regulation advocating for a similar waste classification scheme in June 2015, but with little impact: Two years later, only 20 percent of the city’s residents sort their household waste.

    “Publicity and education alone can’t get our whole society working together to reduce garbage,” said Sun Jinghua, manager of the waste volume reduction program at Friends of Nature, a Beijing-based nonprofit devoted to environmental protection. “People need a distribution system to guide them.” Sun added that the lack of supplementary measures, such as recycling channels and different modes of transport for different kinds of waste, is one of the main reasons why most people don’t follow the rules.

    Garbage sorting has been a recurring topic of discussion since the late 1990s, when Beijing began to experiment with new disposal schemes. In 2000, the central government ordered eight cities to carry out trials by categorizing their household waste. However, not until this year did the government make sorting mandatory rather than merely encouraged.

    The central government’s new plan will also require pilot cities to submit their own specific measures to enforce compliance before the end of 2017.

    According to Shenzhen’s guidelines, individuals and work units that do not follow trash-sorting rules may be fined 50 yuan (about $7) and 1,000 yuan, respectively. Moreover, garbage collection and transport companies, as well as property management companies in charge of residential areas, can also be held responsible for not implementing the rules to the tune of up to 10,000 yuan.

    However, critics dispute whether economic incentives are even necessary in the first place. Beijing put forth a similar fine-based structure in 2010, though this was later removed due to objections from residents, who argued that the proposed measures were not realistic.

    “One rule of thumb is that whoever produces garbage should have to pay for it,” said Sun, the waste reduction program manager. “We should learn from countries such as Japan and South Korea and charge a fee for each bag of trash that has not been sorted.”

    For Mao of Zero Waste Beijing, however, a stricter penalty system should be applied not to citizens, but to the government departments tasked with enforcement. “The government should set a clear agenda and face punishment if the relevant departments fail to reach their targets,” he said.

    Editor: David Paulk.

    (Header image: A young girl separates trash into color-coded bins in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, July 7, 2012. VCG)