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Marketplace Morning Report

Shanghai chips away at its mountain of trash

Jennifer Pak Oct 25, 2019
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Shanghai has made it mandatory for residents and businesses to sort their waste.
Jennifer Pak/Marketplace

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.

An electric wagon that hauls waste has the words: "There are no limits when it comes to doing something for the environment" printed on the bin. Credit: Charles Zhang/Marketplace
“There are no limits when it comes to doing something for the environment” is printed on the bin of an electric wagon that hauls waste. (Charles Zhang/Marketplace)
A poem next to the entrance of a waste sorting station reads:  "Those who litter, have no descendants, get run over by a car. Those who are civilized, live for a hundred years." Credit: Charles Zhang/Marketplace v
A poem next to the entrance of a waste sorting station reads: “Those who litter, have no descendants, get run over by a car. Those who are civilized, live for a hundred years.” (Charles Zhang/Marketplace)

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.

One of Shanghai's new garbage trucks that help handle nearly 33,000 tons of garbage per day in the Chinese city. Credit: Charles Zhang/Marketplace
One of Shanghai’s new garbage trucks that helps handle nearly 33,000 tons of garbage per day in the Chinese city. (Charles Zhang/Marketplace)

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.

Audio announcement in a Shanghai residential community urging residents to only throw out their trash during the designated hours in the morning and at night when the bins are monitored.

Education

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.

E-commerce firm Baiqiu's has more than 1,000 staff all asked to sort their own waste. Credit: Charles Zhang/Marketplace
E-commerce firm Baiqiu is responsible for the waste of more than 1,000 staff members. It’s applauded as a model of compliance to the new rules. (Charles Zhang/Marketplace)
Sun Xiaobin with e-commerce firm Baiqiu. Credit: Charles Zhang/Marketplace
Sun Xiaobin with e-commerce firm Baiqiu in front of the firm’s trash-sorting station. (Charles Zhang/Marketplace)

“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.”

This company notice says that mostly food items belong in the “wet” garbage bin. (Charles Zhang/Marketplace)
Big meat bones are considered “dry” waste. (Charles Zhang/Marketplace)

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.

A jug of water is set next to a garbage sorting station for residents to clean up after people complained that the sorting process made their hands dirty. Credit: Charles Zhang/Marketplace
A jug of water sits next to a garbage-sorting station for residents to clean up. People complained that the sorting process made their hands dirty. (Charles Zhang/Marketplace)

Penalties

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.

Street cleaners have told Marketplace that they've noticed more littering after the waste sorting rules have come into force. Credit: Charles Zhang/Marketplace
Street cleaners say they’ve noticed more littering after the waste-sorting rules have come into force. (Charles Zhang/Marketplace)

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. 

Reduce waste

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.

A screen at the entrance of E-commerce firm Baiqiu reminds staff what goes into "wet" garbage bins. Credit: Charles Zhang/Marketplace
A screen at the entrance of e-commerce firm Baiqiu reminds staff what goes into “wet” garbage bins. (Charles Zhang/Marketplace)

Restaurants and food delivery apps are also not supposed to provide disposable utensils unless customers request it.

Bypassing rules

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.

Huang Youjun said he is putting in more hours at this garbage transfer station. He needs to ensure the waste is sorted correctly or else the garbage trucks can refuse to transport it. Credit: Charles Zhang/Marketplace
Huang Youjun said he is putting in more hours at this garbage transfer station. He needs to ensure the waste is sorted correctly or else the garbage trucks can refuse to transport it. (Charles Zhang/Marketplace)

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.

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