The Trash Rules Separating Generations As Well As Waste
Liu Jidong has garbage on his brain. As the director of a neighborhood residential committee in Shanghai’s Pudong District, the 36-year-old has spent the past four months immersing himself in his community’s waste-disposal habits.
“When it comes to sorting trash, 20- to 35-year-olds are the least cooperative, and they don’t do a good job, either,” he tells Sixth Tone. “The older they are, the better they do.”
Liu is far from the only Shanghai resident fixated on the issue of trash these days. Since the Shanghai Municipal People’s Congress passed a new law late January mandating households to sort their waste into one of four categories — “wet,” “dry,” hazardous, and recyclable — from July 1, the city has become a testing ground for policies soon to be rolled out elsewhere as China works to set up a nationwide urban household trash sorting system by 2025.
On streets and in official outlets, the campaign is defined by slogans like, “Sort your waste; make your home a more beautiful place!” In chat groups and on social media, on the other hand, young people poke fun at the new, extremely detailed, and often counterintuitive rules as they swap memes, satirical videos, and tongue-in-cheek tips for telling the difference between wet and dry waste. “If a pig will eat it, it’s wet; if it won’t, it’s dry,” reads one.
If ordinary residents are fretting about how the policy will affect them — the city says it will fine those who do not comply — the brunt of actually implementing the new regulations has fallen on grassroots officials like Liu.
In Liu’s case, he’s had until July 1 to explain the new process to 1,339 households and persuade them to take part — all with only limited material and financial support from his higher-ups.
But Liu arguably faces an even bigger challenge than a lack of funds: a lack of enthusiasm. How can he convince the same disaffected young Chinese currently dumping on the trash-sorting regulations online to get on board in real life?
The traditional answer would be face-to-face intervention. In a 2007 article, Gui Yong, a professor of sociology at Fudan University in Shanghai, wrote that the modern Chinese state relies heavily on personal interaction between its grassroots agents and citizenry to mobilize society. These agents — whether through their roles as residential committee members, party members, or just volunteers — are expected to build and utilize their personal ties with members of the community, leveraging them to realize the state’s policy goals through a mixture of persuasion and coaxing.
And after decades of practice, these grassroots state agents have formidable toolkits at their disposal. Liu can draw on established neighborhood volunteering networks, mainly comprising elderly and retired residents and Communist Party members, to go door to door explaining the new policy or oversee waste-disposal sites and manually check trash. He can also connect with schools and his local neighborhood youth volunteering groups like the Little Green Army to mobilize young children — and influence their parents. And he can reward compliant residents with points for good behavior, granting them priority access to neighborhood parking spaces and community event registration.
So far, Liu has utilized almost every single one of these resources. His three-stage strategy for promoting the new trash-sorting regulations began with a publicity campaign: Neighborhood committee members and volunteers made two rounds of in-home visits to every apartment in the community.
Next, he organized explanatory lectures, held feedback sessions for residents to express their opinions, and recruited volunteers. Finally, to encourage compliance, he incorporated trash sorting into theexisting local behavioral points system.
Yet few of Liu’s techniques have proven effective at reaching young workers. “(I’ve been) unable to get young people in their 20s and 30s involved,” he says.
Part of the problem is that young residents keep slipping through the cracks. Liu timed his informational house calls to fall between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m., but many young workers on so-called “996” schedules — 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week — were not yet home when Liu’s team came looking for them, he says.
Indeed, the extreme work schedules of young Chinese have created consistent problems throughout the trash-sorting rollout. One of the most contentious strategies adopted by communities around the city, including Liu’s, is restricting trash drop-offs to certain times of the day when there are volunteers on hand to monitor compliance: usually a few hours in the morning and again at night.
In Liu’s case, he set open hours from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. and from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. every day — all he could manage with the available volunteers, he says. But young residents complain that these times are inconvenient and force them to hold onto their trash overnight or even longer.
Over time, dissatisfaction with this policy has festered. In late May, an article titled “People Who Work ‘996’ Have Lost Their Right to Throw Garbage Away” went viral on social messaging app WeChat for its argument that the designated disposal times being set up across Shanghai often discriminate against young people.
“I have to admit I’m impressed with the people (behind this),” the author writes. “They managed to turn something the whole world agrees is a good thing into something so inhuman.”
Lisbon Tong, a 35-year-old editor at an urban policy magazine and resident of Changning District, is more measured in his complaints. “The logic of trash sorting doesn’t take young people’s needs into account,” he says. “Basically, in three-generation households, the default is for the elderly to dispose of the trash. But independent young couples and those with kids but no live-in parents or housekeepers can’t handle it this way.”
A lack of privacy under the new system is another concern for many young residents. Some communities have started passing out QR code stickers for trash bags, allowing them to identify noncompliant residents. More commonly, designated volunteers personally check the contents of residents’ trash, ensuring they have met requirements before they can dispose of it.
“I had carefully sorted it myself, but she (the person on duty) just had to check it again,” 36-year-old Chi Mian says, recounting a recent trash-disposal trip. “On the one hand, I thought she was a very diligent worker. But on the other, it made me feel like my privacy was being violated.”
Liu, however, blames younger residents’ intransigence on a lack of social responsibility. “People in their 20s and 30s are more self-aware,” he says. “It’s a good thing that they have their own ways of thinking, but sometimes those ways become obstacles ... There are also some very cooperative and responsible young people, but most young people are indifferent to society.”
Chi, who lives in a lilong lane house in central Shanghai, disagrees. “There are those (young people) who pay attention to policy — as opposed to just entertainment news,” she says.
Instead, she blames youth resentment on poor communication and outreach by neighborhood officials. “People in my age group (in their 20s and 30s) do not want to hear the neighborhood committee lecture them,” she says. “I feel like community work always targets the elderly, but something that affects all of us, like trash sorting — I just feel like they aren’t communicating with everyone.”
Not every young person has a negative impression of the trash-sorting campaign. He Luwen, a 25-year-old Pudong resident, was impressed by the official garbage classification brochure she recently received. “Trash sorting was implemented for the Expo 2010, but it wasn’t strictly enforced,” she tells Sixth Tone. “I think it’s the equivalent of studying and accepting a new thing before it becomes common. It’s like a blank sheet of paper; we’re still learning it.”
In his neighborhood, Liu says he has sought to bridge the generational gap by making what he views as a conciliatory gesture: He will extend garbage disposal hours, on the condition that young residents volunteer for shifts overseeing the trash drop-off points. Few have signed up, however, and the extension has not yet been implemented.
For Tong, concessions like this might be too little, too late. “Did you think of ‘996’ workers when this all started?” he asks. “You didn’t. And then after everything’s set you want to trade. Is that really fair?”
Fan Zhongkang, an 86-year-old community coordination volunteer in Baoshan District, acknowledges that right now, it’s older residents doing the most to support the campaign. But he also believes that young people shouldn’t be expected to take on this burden. “Young people should be starting their families and careers; (they should) have their own spaces and set aside time for themselves,” he says.
Tong agrees. “I think we need to find a reasonable balance, because while it’s difficult to get (us young people) involved, we’re also relatively smart,” he says. “With clear public policy goals, we can do it ourselves, allowing residential committees and volunteers to help those people who actually need to be organized.”
In Liu’s office, the work of organization is visible on three whiteboards covered in planned volunteer schedules. Currently, the volunteer shifts are scheduled to end in late August, at which point the neighborhood committee may install surveillance cameras at the disposal point to ensure continued compliance.
But in the meantime, with the new rules effective as of July 1, Liu simply hopes that, if he can get most people on board, younger residents will eventually follow suit.
“If trash sorting is going to work, it’ll depend on our generation, not the elderly,” he says. “And for young people, (their actions) really depend on the world around them. Change that environment, and they’ll sort the trash on their own.”
Translator: Matt Turner; editors: Yang Xiaozhou and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Performers use garbage bins as drums during a promotional event for waste sorting in Shanghai, Dec. 12, 2018. Zhong Yang/IC)