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From Refuse to Reuse
Garbage sorting made mandatory to ensure a cleaner environment
By Li Nan | VOL.11 September ·2019-09-06

Children learn how to sort garbage correctly in a primary school in Hefei, east China’s Anhui Province on July 11 (XINHUA)

Swipe, dump and get rewards. These are the three basic steps to dump sorted garbage in smart bins in Beijing. Li Ping, a 77-year-old Beijing resident, has mastered the procedure after three years of practice.

According to Li, every resident in her community has an online "green account" with its unique QR code. The bin doors open only when one uses the unique code. But before you can put the trash in, on-the-spot supervisors will see if it has been correctly sorted into different piles. Once they give the thumbs-up and the trash bags are dropped into different bins, bonus points are added to your online account, to be accumulated and exchanged later for articles of daily use.

"It's a good way to encourage residents to handle garbage properly," Li told ChinAfrica. Also, the smart trash bins get sealed automatically and the unpleasant odor stays inside. "The environment and air in our community are much cleaner now," she said.

In 2016, smart bins were introduced in several residential communities in Beijing as a pilot move to encourage garbage sorting. By the end of 2018, garbage sorting had been implemented in more than 30 percent of the city's sub-districts. The number is expected to triple by the end of 2020.

Carrot and stick

Beijing was among the first eight Chinese cities to introduce garbage sorting in 2000. Twelve years later, a regulation was rolled out in the capital to manage garbage sorting in government departments, property management company offices and trash disposal units.

However, the result was not satisfactory since garbage sorting was not mandatory and the incentives were not strong enough to win over the masses, according to Wu Xiangyang, an associate research fellow with the Beijing Academy of Social Sciences.

Consequently, the capital is overloaded with garbage. Nearly 2.6 tons of household wastes are produced in Beijing daily, or 1.1 kg per capita per day, according to Sun Xinjun, head of the Beijing Municipal Commission of Urban Management.

It's not just a Beijing problem but a nationwide issue. According to data from the Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE), nearly 202 million tons of household waste was generated in 2018.

Garbage sorting can address the problem. Hence 46 cities, including the big four, Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, will have to introduce mandatory garbage sorting by the end of 2020.

"It's an unprecedented step. Mandatory garbage sorting is being implemented nationwide. It shows China's resolve to protect its environment," Wu Zhenglin, General Secretary of the Xiamen (Siming) Environmental Protection Volunteer Alliance (XEPVA) from southeast China's Fujian Province, told ChinAfrica.

On July 1, Shanghai became the first city to take the pioneering step to make waste classification mandatory.

It's a carrot-and-stick regulation. On one hand, there are incentives. Residents who sort their garbage well are rewarded with bonus points which can be redeemed for gifts or services.

On the other hand, individuals and companies that don't sort their trash will be fined between 200 yuan ($28.5) and 50,000 yuan ($7,125).

And it did the trick. In July, Shanghai picked up 14.8 percent more kitchen waste and 9.68 percent more recyclables than in June.

Now Beijing is mulling an amendment to its garbage sorting law. "When the new law takes effect, it will become illegal not to sort your garbage. The minimum fine for offenders in Beijing will be not less than 200 yuan," Sun said.

Tailored approaches

Tailored measures are encouraged when introducing garbage sorting in different places. Creating a closed-cycle process is an effective measure for rural areas. It means turning kitchen waste into organic fertilizer. Xinzhuang, a village in north Beijing, is a shining example.

The 2,000 villagers make their living by growing strawberries in greenhouses. Before 2012, the village put all its garbage in a pit 667 square meters large and just a few dozen meters deep. Though expected to hold the village's waste for a decade, it was almost full after just four years. There were adverse effects like some livestock dying after eating plastic bags from the heaped garbage.

Yang Jing, who lives in the village, lost a sheep that way. The saddened woman then started a volunteers' group with six other women to help keep the village clean. Garbage sorting was the first step. Volunteers joined the village management committee to persuade villagers to sort their garbage.

Lectures, performances and other activities were held to educate and encourage them to take part in the initiative. After two years of efforts, the villagers developed the habit of garbage sorting and 80 to 90 percent of the waste began to be recycled. The once dirty village became a poster child for zero pollution.

The Xinzhuang model has been introduced in other rural areas in north, south and east China. By July 2018, more than 60 villages had started the "zero pollution village" campaign.

Mass participation

How to get everyone to join the green campaign is a challenge for the government. An MEE survey in June found only 30.1 percent of the respondents did well in garbage sorting although more than 92.2 percent admitted that garbage sorting is key for protecting the environment.

Third-party companies, primary organizations of the Communist Party of China (CPC), volunteers and schools are encouraged to join the initiative and get others to join as well.

From 2016, Beijing started using the services of third parties for garbage disposal. They install smart bins in communities, hire on-the-spot garbage sorting supervisors, launch online apps and offer gifts to encourage residents to correctly dispose of their garbage. New jobs have been created in the process. In 2018, there were over 27,800 garbage sorting supervisors.

Primary CPC organizations also play a key role in garbage sorting. "Members of the CPC are bellwethers in garbage sorting," Wang Ying, Director of the Baiziwan Neighborhood Committee, told ChinAfrica. Party members actively take part in garbage sorting and set examples for their neighbors and relatives, Wang said.

Volunteers are an important advocacy force for garbage sorting. They often consist of retirees. For instance, there are more than 100 volunteers in the Post Modern Resident Community in east Beijing, who are connected through an online group on WeChat, China's most popular instant massaging app. Messages about garbage sorting and other activities reach all members simultaneously and reverberate through the entire community. Li is part of the group. "When hanging out with friends and neighbors, we remind them to sort the garbage," Li said.

Schools have also begun garbage sorting education. In Xiamen, Fujian Province, there are three kinds of handbooks instructing children aged between 3 and 18 how to distinguish between different kinds of waste. Middle schools and kindergartens are organizing talks and other activities on trash sorting.

"Garbage sorting may seem like a government task to improve people's livelihood but it's actually a step to change citizens' behavior," XEPVA's Wu told ChinAfrica.

Miao Guiqing, Deputy Director of Beijing Chaoyang Circular Economy Industry, echoed Wu. "We need to change our way of life," Miao said.

(Comments to niyanshuo@chinafrica.cn)

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