Shanghai officials say the city’s mandatory waste-sorting program has shown “remarkable achievements” after more garbage was diverted from landfills than originally anticipated.
Since July 1, residents have been required to sort their waste, with an extensive monitoring system and penalties in place to ensure compliance.
Old garbage cans have been removed and replaced with four colored bins: blue for recyclables; red for hazardous materials; brown for household food waste or “wet” garbage; and black for residual or “dry” waste.
“We’ve recovered 5,600 metric tons (6,200 tons) of recyclable waste per day — several times higher than last year — and more than 9,000 metric tons (9,900 tons) of wet garbage is sorted every day,” Xu Zhiping, director of the Shanghai Greenery and Public Sanitation Bureau, said during a government media tour in mid-October. “Compared to the same time last year, we’ve reduced dry waste by a quarter.”
He said less trash is being sent to landfills.
“This is a remarkable achievement,” Xu said.
A lot of garbage
Shanghai households, companies and public institutions generate nearly 33,000 tons of waste and recyclables per day.
According to a Shanghai government video, after two weeks, the amount of garbage collected and stacked vertically could reach the top of the city’s skyscraper, the Jinmao tower — taller than the Empire State Building.
Much of Shanghai’s trash has been buried, but the city is running out of space.
The pilot plan is part of a broader drive by China’s government to get serious about the environment. It comes a year after the country stopped taking in waste from the United States and other countries because officials said recyclables were mixed in with hazardous materials.
Now the country is turning to its own waste management, starting with Shanghai.
Xu from the city’s sanitation bureau said a mix of education, monitoring and punitive measures have ensured its sorting rules are followed.
Shanghai’s government has organized some 20,000 events to teach the new waste-sorting rules. It has also distributed 34 million copies of education materials, which might not have been the most environmentally friendly method, but Xu said education is key.
“Waste sorting is not simply about separating garbage, it is also about changing people’s habits,” he said.
The rules are quite complex when it comes to what is “wet” versus “dry” waste. It has inspired helpful guides in the form of music videos. One of the most popular ones is set to the catchy tune from the old TV series “Shanghai Bund.”
The lyrics go:
“Wet tissues are dry waste. No matter how wet they are, they are still dry waste.
Sunflower seed shells are wet waste. No matter how dry they are, they are still wet waste.
If pigs can eat it, it is wet waste, along with anything that is easy to decompose or ground up.
If pigs cannot eat it, and you don’t know how to sort it, if it is not hazardous, then just throw it into the dry waste bin.”
However, a recycling app from the government reveals that the rules are far more complicated than that.
While corn husks are considered dry waste, corn cobs go in the “wet” bin.
Fish and chicken bones are wet garbage, while big pork bones are dry waste.
The app explains that anything that can be broken down easily is “wet” garbage and can be made into fertilizer, while dry waste that might jam the city’s grinding machines should be burned to produce electricity.
All eyes on trash bins
If unsure, residents can ask for help from more than 220,000 volunteers deployed around the city. Security guards and cleaners are also expected to keep an eye on their building’s trash bins.
Some communities only allow residents to throw out trash twice a day in two two-hour blocks when someone is around to monitor.
“Overall, I support the policy,” Shanghai resident An Jing said. “I just have one problem with it. There’s only one set of garbage bins in my apartment complex. When it’s raining, it feels like I have to walk more than a mile to throw out the trash.”
She also has a QR code that volunteers scan before she throws out her trash. This technology can be used to trace the origins of a garbage bag or give residents reward points for sorting their garbage properly.
An is unsure what she can get for her points, but media reports suggest she could redeem them for goods like toothpaste.
Noncompliant residents could be penalized with a citation on social credit files or fines of up to 200 yuan ($28) for individuals and 50,000 yuan ($7,000) for companies.
E-commerce firm Baiqiu is nearly 100% compliant, what the Shanghai government considers a model company.
But administrative director Sun Xiaobin said it wasn’t easy to get the company’s 1,000-plus staff on board.
“We’re in e-commerce. It’s a fast-paced industry. People who work in our customer service barely have enough time for a lunch break, so many were not willing to sort out their garbage after a meal,” she said.
However, the firm does have cleaners and surveillance cameras to monitor the trash bins.
“Staff members who have received repeated warnings for not separating their garbage will have to work alongside the office cleaners to sort waste,” Sun said.
Separating garbage is one way to reduce waste. Businesses are also asked to produce less trash overall.
E-commerce firm Baiqiu provides meals for staff. Instead of ordering in food, which is normally delivered in plastic containers, the firm has signed a deal with a nearby restaurant where employees can dine in.
Restaurants and food delivery apps are also not supposed to provide disposable utensils unless customers request it.
It is still possible to not sort your garbage outside of the home and office.
Many trash bins have been removed from public places.
“It is quite annoying. You need to walk a long distance to find a garbage-sorting area,” resident Li Li said. “I see many people just throw trash on the streets.”
Marketplace has confirmed with some street cleaners that they have seen more littering since the sorting rules came into place.
So far, officials haven’t been aggressive in fining people. They’ve only penalized 340 firms and individuals for not complying — a tiny number in a city of 24 million.
Perhaps it is because there is an army of low-paid workers, like Li Xinan, who make sure all the waste is sorted before garbage trucks arrive.
“Before, I would get off work at 3 or 5 p.m. Now I can’t leave until 8 at night. That’s more than 14 hours a day,” he said.
He said he doesn’t get more pay for the extra hours. The 63-year-old plans to quit soon.
If you’re a member of your local public radio station, we thank you — because your support helps those stations keep programs like Marketplace on the air. But for Marketplace to continue to grow, we need additional investment from those who care most about what we do: superfans like you.
Your donation — as little as $5 — helps us create more content that matters to you and your community, and to reach more people where they are – whether that’s radio, podcasts or online.
When you contribute directly to Marketplace, you become a partner in that mission: someone who understands that when we all get smarter, everybody wins.