New Waste Sorting Laws in Shanghai

Recently in Shanghai you could overhear the following conversation: "Tissues are dry waste, no matter how wet it gets. Nut shells are wet waste no matter how dry it is. Things that are compostable and can be given to pigs are all wet waste. Things you can’t figure out and can’t feed to pigs are all dry waste.” The new local waste sorting law is to blame for all the confusion about how to actually dispose of the different types of garbage.

What happened: The new law came into effect on July 1st. It requires Shanghai residents to sort household trash into four categories — dry garbage, wet garbage (kitchen waste), recyclables and hazardous waste — and individuals who fail to do so will be fined up to 200 yuan ($30). For companies and institutions, the fine can go up to 50,000 yuan. In addition, garbage trucks can refuse to pick up the trash if it's not properly sorted. And just a word of warning for our readers: tourists and expats will also be fined. No exceptions.

Why: China is home to a quarter of all plastic waste that is dumped out in the open. It is estimated that the Yangtze River carried more than 367,000 tons of plastic debris into the sea in 2015. This is more than any other river in the world, and twice the amount carried by the Ganges in India and Bangladesh. The world’s third and fourth most polluting rivers are also in China. For Shanghai, it is a city of 24 million residents that produces more than 9 million metric tons of domestic garbage every year but lacks even a rudimentary municipal recycling system. Waste sorting has so far been dirty manual labor despite all advances in technology. According to this report, there are roughly 4 Mio waste pickers in China. Things have gone even worse after the enormous success of food delivery businesses in China producing tens of billions in plastic wrapped meal deliveries.

How: The how-to is always the tough part in a country like China. But then again, China knows a lot about mass activation to enforce new policies from experience, as described by Inkstone:

At the central business district of Jingan, performers struck forceful beats on tall garbage cans in a synchronized drum performance. Other districts like Yangpu adapted the lyrics of a hit song into garbage sorting lore.

Residents are only allowed to dispose of waste during certain hours, thus making sure that neighbors will see who is and who isn’t sorting properly. They must empty food waste into public garbage bins without using bags, so everyone can also see what is being throwing away. And officials can threaten to cut off garbage collection for whole communities if they don’t abide by the rules.

The new policy has quickly taken Chinese social media by storm. In the first week of July, three of the five top-searched topics on Weibo were related to Shanghai’s trash policy. It also shouldn't come as a surprise that food delivery companies and their apps are specifically targeted to reduce waste.

"Scientists estimate that the online takeout business in China was responsible for 1.6 million tons of packaging waste in 2017, a ninefold jump from two years before. That includes 1.2 million tons of plastic containers, 175,000 tons of disposable chopsticks, 164,000 tons of plastic bags and 44,000 tons of plastic spoons."

The digital giants also got into the game as responsible corporate citizen. Alipay, for instance, launched two mini programs to help people sort trash. The apps’ main feature is about sorting tips, waste image identification, and there will be more features involving voice recognition, image identification and AR interaction. and Meituan, the two leading food delivery businesses have revamped their apps services as well assisting customers in making more conscious decision about how and what to order but also added a service item by which they help customers to throw away waste on their behalf - kind of like "outsourced waste disposal". After one week had seen a 149 percent increase in orders with the note “no plastic cutlery needed” as compared to June. Rival app “Meituan takeout” had also reported a sharp increase of “no tableware please” orders since the policy started.

Take-away: It's a long way to go until all Chinese cities have proper waste sorting policies implemented let alone proper treatment facilities erected across the country. But the fact that the Shanghai initiative has everyone talk about and discuss the importance of sorting our waste, is tremendous progress and deserves praise and hopefully can be the beginning of a wider lifestyle change. The central government has already designated 46 more trial cities that are supposed to recycle more than 35% of their local garbage by 2020.