In the middle of 2019, China marked its new era of trash sorting by experimenting with Shanghai, where residential compounds in the city were required to replace all trash bins in the building hallways with four large ones in designated areas. These colorful, truck-like trash bins, labeled “wet,” “dry,” “recyclable,” and “hazardous,” were only open to residents a few hours a day, watched by volunteers who took turns checking each bag to see if it was thrown into the right bin.
Such massive efforts paid off. In just four months, the eastern megacity recycled four to six times more trash than a year ago, according to Shanghai’s deputy mayor Tang Zhiping at a conference in mid-November. Household food waste, or so-called “wet trash,” was the eyesore of the whole sorting system for its distinctive smell and that, too, was filtering out 8,710 tons per day, nearly double from the same period last year. Some Shanghai residents, as Tang pointed out, “have developed good habits to sort trash so volunteers don’t need to stand by the bins to check anymore.”
As Shanghai set up a model in waste classification for the rest of China, other large cities, especially Beijing, are expected to follow suit. In late 2019, the capital passed the Domestic Waste Management Regulations, which would enforce a city-wide garbage sorting system starting in May 2020. Like Shanghai, Beijing has categorized all household trash into “kitchen waste,” “recyclables,” “hazardous waste,” and “others.” Individuals who defy regulations would be fined $7 to $30, depending on severity.
On January 15, Beijing’s Deputy Mayor Zhang Jiaming held a panel discussion with recycling company owners. During the discussion, Zhang put an emphasis on visiting homes and educating residents about trash sorting. The panel lasted five hours and was supposed to be a prologue of a motivational meeting set at the end of January for thousands of Beijing residents.
And then the coronavirus changed everything.
There’s a reason why Zhang drew so much attention to volunteers visiting homes at the early January panel. To knock on doors and talk about waste classification face-to-face has proved to be one of the most effective measures to impose large-scale trash sorting, according to people who work at different environmental NGOs. Yan Lingling, who works at Aifen Environment Organization in Shanghai, says that elderly residents are especially enthusiastic about visiting neighbors once they are convinced by volunteers of the necessity to sort trash.
Yet such a main force of the campaign turned out to be the most vulnerable to the coronavirus, which put not only the elderly but the whole country in lockdown at the end of January. Almost nothing about Beijing’s trash sorting agenda went as planned as China rushed to impose social distancing in crowded areas. Beijing, one of the hardest-hit cities by SARS in 2003, went almost neurotic about protecting its 21 million residents this time. In-person communications became a luxury, let alone the meetings, the talks, the in-person visits that were supposed to sweep the local media since January. On February 9, the city started requiring all residential compounds to implement “closed-off management,” which opened the door to the weird quotidian of checkpoints, community passes, and thermometer guns in all neighborhoods. As people were advised to work from home, to wear masks at all times, and to cut travels at all costs, the publicity on trash sorting was reduced to its minimal form. Posters were loosely pasted on doors instead of handed to residents. Neighborhood committees were too busy checking people’s temperatures and travel histories to fine anyone throwing cardboard boxes into a pile of kitchen waste. The conflict of deploying resources between containing the coronavirus and promoting trash sorting aggravated when multiple waste workers reported being shut out of residential compounds because they didn’t have passes issued by the neighborhood committees.
In April, Beijing finally took a breath from the rush to get the disease under control as the first wave of coronavirus started to die down. On the Beijing Municipal Commission of Urban Management website, several announcements addressing trash sorting popped up three months later than planned, although the quarantine fatigue seemed to persist. Despite the city government’s effort to catch up with Shanghai’s waste classification agenda, many in-person educational programs were still postponed. Some residential compounds in Beijing, like those in Shanghai, have replaced unlabeled garbage containers with labeled ones outside of residential buildings, yet they still rely on waste workers to filter out the obnoxious kitchen waste. Most residents, oblivious to the enlarged labels on trash cans, throw bags of rubbish into random bins.
In Fenglinlvzhou, one of the residential compounds in northern Beijing, two waste workers are assigned by the Olympic Village Subdistrict Office to sort out kitchen waste from other trash produced by residents in nearly 1,800 units. After careful planning, the compound designated 22 garbage disposal areas, each of which has a bin labeled “kitchen waste” and four others as “other trash.” Mr. Li, one of the two waste workers, wakes up at 4 a.m. every day with a tong in hand, ready to poke bags of trash until early afternoon, from when his colleague Mr. Guo takes over until midnight. Unlike the residential compounds in Shanghai, where the pressure of trash sorting falls on all residents, those in Beijing have until now employed waste workers like Mr. Li and Mr. Guo to simplify the sorting process. This is largely due to the fact that Beijing has only set limits for trash sorting companies and NGOs to filter out a minimum amount of kitchen waste from other trash, while Shanghai inspects all stakeholders to maximize efficiency.
Another key to Shanghai’s waste sorting success is to set a specific time window during which residents are allowed to take out trash under the supervision of volunteers. After years of efforts to engage residents in trash sorting, Yan Lingling comes to the conclusion that without proper guidance and inspection, people usually don’t sort trash voluntarily in the early stages. It was hard for Shanghai to deploy limited human resources among millions of garbage disposal areas, said Yan, let alone Beijing, which has grown increasingly weary of placing guards and neighborhood committee members at every street corner to prevent the invasion of coronavirus. Two months into Beijing’s trash sorting efforts, very few residential compounds deploy volunteers watching over trash bins and educating residents about waste classification. In most Beijing neighborhoods, people are still free to bring out trash whenever they like, not bothered or fined like before.
The disproportionate placement of different trash bins also casts doubt on Beijing’s waste sorting ability. According to a study published on China Resources Comprehensive Utilization in October, at least 65% of household garbage in Beijing is kitchen waste, which could be turned into fuel or fertilizer depending on how much oil and salt it contains. About 10% is recyclable, 1% hazardous, and 20%-30% is other waste. Yet in some Beijing neighborhoods, there are three or four times more trash bins labeled as “other waste” than “kitchen waste,” which suggests an underlying inefficiency.
Apart from the obstacles in the front end such as the lack of personal visits, heavy reliance on waste workers, and growing quarantine fatigue, Beijing is also facing unique challenges in the back end. For unclear reasons, some studies have found that it costs the capital more to bury or burn “other trash” than other cities. In 2017, professor Song Guojun from the Department of Environmental Sciences at Renmin University of China conducted research about how expensive it would be for Beijing to collect, deliver, and burn trash for thermal power. Song’s team found that the whole process in Beijing would cost $319 per ton of trash, compared to the nationwide standard of $42. Shanghai, on the other hand, matches the average with $43 per ton, according to research by Guojin Securities at the end of 2019.
Without the coronavirus, it is possible that Beijing could copy Shanghai’s success story and presents a cleaner image to the rest of the country despite some innate disadvantages. After all, Shanghai has paved the road for China’s other metropolitan cities alike. Yet, as COVID-19 put a pause on everything, not to mention the second wave that has swept the capital and caused more than 300 infections since June 11, Beijing is caught in a terrible dilemma. To catch up with its eastern counterpart, the capital city will need to recover from the aftermath of the coronavirus first.