How China Is Trying To Stem Its Massive Plastic Pollution Problem

The country is rolling out a major new trash policy. Residents already hate it.

SHANGHAI ― In a cramped courtyard behind a row of whitewashed apartment buildings, Qin Jinfeng stands guard next to a row of color-coded trash cans.

Qin, a short, affable man in his forties, can be found here every evening. He has handled security at the Beicheng Apartments in central Shanghai for years, but now he has an extra set of duties: making sure the hundred or so families in his complex sort their garbage correctly.

Residents must hand their trash bags over to Qin, who inspects the contents before tossing them in the correct bin.

Black bins are for “dry” stuff, brown for “wet,” blue for “recyclable” and red for “hazardous.” Sorting waste into these categories became mandatory in the city on July 1. There’s a penalty of 200 yuan ($30) for folks who don’t comply.

“It’s like having a driving license,” Qin told HuffPost. “You’ll be fined if you break the rules.”

A color-coded trash sorting station in a residential area of Shanghai. New rules for separating different types of trash went into effect in the city on July 1. It's China's most ambitious garbage separation and recycling program ever.
A color-coded trash sorting station in a residential area of Shanghai. New rules for separating different types of trash went into effect in the city on July 1. It's China's most ambitious garbage separation and recycling program ever.
HECTOR RETAMAL via Getty Images

Similar scenes are playing out across Shanghai as the Chinese government tries to get a nationwide waste crisis under control. The country’s richest city, home to 26 million people, will serve as a testing ground for the new trash-sorting rules, which the government plans to roll out in the rest of the country soon.

These moves are meant to cut down on landfill waste ― including plastic ― and curb rampant pollution of the country’s air, soil and water. Breakneck economic growth over the past several decades has left China with a domestic garbage problem that’s growing faster than it can manage. Inadequate waste disposal facilities and unauthorized dumping in China cause an estimated 2.4 million tons of plastic to leak into the ocean each year, far more than any other nation.

Last year, in an attempt to shed its image as the world’s garbage dump, China cracked down on mass imports of foreign recyclables like paper and plastic, some of which were ending up in waterways or burn piles. With imports now at a trickle, the country has turned its attention to trash at home.

“People want to do something good for the environment,” Yuan Jiasheng, a teacher who lives in the north of Shanghai, told HuffPost.

She admitted that she is skeptical of the new sorting rules. “No one really knows if it will work,” she said. “But we can try.”

China says it recycles only 20% of its waste. The U.S., by comparison, recycles 35%.

China has a booming recycling industry, but virtually no municipal collection systems that feed directly into it. In most Chinese cities, informal networks of waste pickers collect and sort valuable items, then sell them to processing facilities. This work is done outside of regulatory oversight, meaning there’s no guarantee that the plastic is being disposed of properly.

Informal recyclers are extremely efficient, but they are driven by profits rather than concern for the environment, said Richard Brubaker, founder of Collective Responsibility, a Shanghai-based sustainability consultancy. “The informal sector is often not up to standard, often not licensed,” he added.

The waste pickers are continuing their work for now, but experts suspect that the government may crack down on them in the future to make way for official collection. In what might be a sign of changes to come, a new fleet of municipal garbage trucks recently appeared on the streets of Shanghai to collect sorted trash and transport recyclables on to processors.

An informal recycler working in Shanghai in 2017.
An informal recycler working in Shanghai in 2017.

Shanghai’s new trash policy also includes measures to reduce single-use plastic items. Hotels, for instance, are supposed to stop offering every customer disposable products such as toothbrushes. Restaurants and food-delivery apps have been told not to include plastic disposable cutlery unless customers specifically request it with their order.

The Chinese government hopes these rules will help create a new attitude toward garbage that’s akin to what you might see in Germany, where strict recycling rules are a point of national pride.

“China is trying to transition from a low-cost, informal recycling system to a more Western-style system that depends on civic-mindedness,” says Adam Minter, who wrote a book about the global recycling economy. “And that’s hard because no one’s done that anywhere.”

Indeed, the policy got off to a rocky start this month.

Though residents who spoke to HuffPost were generally supportive of trash sorting in principle, many complained bitterly about how inconvenient the new rules are.

Most housing developments removed all the trash cans in their buildings and forced residents to walk to one designated sorting station. These areas are only open at specific times in the morning and evening, when volunteers like Qin are on hand to ensure that residents have sorted their waste correctly.

Young professionals working China’s grueling “996” workweek (9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days per week) have been especially vocal about the rules because the sorting stations are often closed by the time they arrive home.

“Shanghai’s garbage sorting makes me want to swear!” complained one commenter on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social media platform. “They [local officials] don’t consider the people or the actual situation at all.”

Others chafe at the indignity of having a stranger rummage through their trash.

Arguments over whether chicken bones or shrimp shells count as “wet” or “dry” waste have raged. In one extreme case, a female resident reportedly choked a volunteer after being told she had failed to sort her waste correctly.

Inspectors have already handed out thousands of warnings since the new rules took effect. A second offense incurs an automatic fine.

The government has said that violators might also be punished via China’s controversial social credit system, which can restrict an individual’s freedoms in a variety of spheres — making it more difficult to do everything from buying a plane ticket to obtaining a loan.

Some districts plan to install facial recognition cameras at sorting stations to make sure residents dump their trash properly, while others have threatened to stop collecting trash from communities that miss their sorting targets.

Miniature replicas of Shanghai's new waste-sorting bins were used to help locals learn the rules.
Miniature replicas of Shanghai's new waste-sorting bins were used to help locals learn the rules.

Forty-five other Chinese cities are scheduled to roll out similar trash-sorting rules as early as next year, and the policy will be extended to the entire country by 2025. That same year, China will generate over 500 million tons of waste ― double its present amount ― according to estimates from the World Bank.

Overflowing urban landfills are a common problem already. Shanghai’s massive Laogang facility will be full by the end of 2019, five years earlier than expected. In many cases, pollutants leaching from hastily constructed dumping grounds have poisoned cities’ soil and groundwater.

Local governments have plans to build more than 100 incinerators to avoid digging yet more garbage dumps. But public opposition to these plants is intense, as some have been linked to higher cancer rates among local populations.

The government therefore wants to make sure as much waste is diverted from landfills as possible. Cities have been ordered to raise their recycling rates to 35% by 2020.

Experts caution that sorting waste is only the first step. Cities also need to build out infrastructure to collect, transport and process waste.

In a few cases, Shanghai officials have admitted, waste from all four categories has been dumped into the same truck — a recurring problem in China that contributed to the failure of several previous recycling drives.

Chen Liwen, head of the campaign group Zero Waste Villages, which has worked with the government to promote voluntary trash sorting in several regions across China, worries that local authorities will be unwilling to make the required investment, especially in smaller cities where budgets are often already severely overstretched.

“They want to save money,” she said. But making massive waste management improvements is not cheap.

A garbage dump near the Yellow River outside the city of Jinan, several hundred miles away from Shanghai.
A garbage dump near the Yellow River outside the city of Jinan, several hundred miles away from Shanghai.

Conservationists also say that big companies making plastic or packaging their products in it should strive to use less virgin plastic. Garbage-sorting rules, like the ones in Shanghai, could help limit new plastic production. But this, too, will probably be expensive.

China’s plastics industry is the world’s largest, accounting for nearly 30% of global production, and until recently it was heavily reliant on foreign waste as a cheap source of raw materials. Prior to January 2018, China had imported 45% of the world’s scrap plastic. But when the government cracked down on foreign trash imports, it sent demand for new plastic soaring among Chinese manufacturers.

Why not switch to recycling plastic that’s thrown out at home? Right now, most of it’s too contaminated with food particles and grease, or it’s so mixed in with other non-plastic trash that separating it out is very difficult, said Ben Ho, president of the China Thermoforming Association, a plastics industry group. Making new plastic is cheaper than cleaning and sorting old plastics for recycling.

“International waste is cheap, so there was no need to invest in expensive machinery to upgrade the waste quality,” Ho told HuffPost.

Now, Chinese petrochemical firms are increasing production of PET resin — which is used to make plastic drinking bottles — by millions of tons, Ho says.

The garbage-sorting policy could bring down the cost of using domestic waste significantly, as consumers will separate off plastics from dirty kitchen waste and rinse off food containers before throwing them in the trash. But if it doesn’t, using domestic waste will simply not be cost-effective for producers, according to Ho.

“If the waste-sorting system works well, things will be better” for the plastics industry, said Ho. “But right now it is a crisis.”

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