China is the world’s second-largest producer of municipal solid waste (MSW) and a recycling regimen is long overdue. The central government finally set out waste sorting plans in March 2017 that aim to recycle 35 per cent of waste in 46 major cities, including Shanghai, by 2020. The city passed a law in January to become the first Chinese city to adopt a mandatory waste classification, in July.
Shanghai has a population of 24 million, and while it might be late to the recycling game, compared to cities in America, Taiwan or Japan, it is hoped its waste sorting programme will have a significant effect and influence change nationwide.
Waste sorting has developed in three stages since the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949. State-run supply and marketing cooperatives (SMCs) controlled the supply and disposal of commodities in villages and townships during China’s planned economy of the 1950s. Household rubbish was divided into recyclable and non-recyclable waste. Widespread poverty meant villagers were eager to supplement their income by selling recyclable waste to their local SMC.
With the introduction of market economy reforms by Deng Xiaoping in 1978, the SMCs network started fading out and private scavengers and recycling businesses became new players in sorting and recycling waste. Scavengers sifted through public rubbish bins and merchants collected waste from people’s homes on their tricycles. Recyclable waste was then sold to middlemen who transferred the materials to depots on city outskirts.
But these private operators often picked only those items of high commercial value for recycling and left other rubbish mounting on the edges of urban areas.
The government concentrated on disposing of non-recyclable household waste.
By the early 2000s, rapid urbanisation prompted the government to explore waste sorting pilot schemes. The pressure to efficiently recycle rubbish became more acute as a decline in certain raw material markets took a toll on scavengers and recycling businesses. In recent years, the dramatic increase in delivery package waste derived from the boom in e-commerce has further aggravated the challenges facing cities.
According to China’s National Bureau of Statistics, the country collected and transported 215 million tonnes of municipal solid waste (MSW) in 2017, equivalent to 0.72kg per urban resident per day.
In March 2017, the central government set out plans for a standardised system of sorting rubbish in 46 cities, including Shanghai, targeting 35 per cent of their waste to be recycled by 2020.
These are the 10 cities that generated the most municipal solid waste (MSW) in China in 2017. Beijing, with a population of 21.7 million, generated the most.
Seven of these cities ranked among the country’s top 10 economies by GDP in 2017.
Six of them were from provinces among the top 10 highest investors in domestic garbage treatment in 2017. Guangdong province grabbed the second spot with an investment of 2.14 billion yuan (US$305 million), which accounted for 1.9 per cent of its investment in urban service facilities.
Of the 46 major cities, most are the provincial capitals or big municipalities directly administered by the central government.
Jiangcungou landfill, serving Xian, the capital city of Shaanxi province, is also one of the largest landfills in China.
Satellite image: Google, Maxar Technologies
It will reach its maximum capacity by the end of October this year, more than 25 years earlier than anticipated.
On September 1, 2019, Xian started to implement a compulsory household garbage sorting system. According to local newspaper Huashang Daily, the rubbish at Jiangcungou landfill is about 40-50 storeys deep (or around 130 metres), according to aerial pictures taken in July.
This is not an exceptional case. Landfills across China are reaching maximum capacity quicker than expected. In 2017, households in Beijing alone tossed out more than 9 million tonnes of garbage. About 47 per cent of which was poured into landfill sites, but these are considered bad for the environment and create odour problems. The rest of the garbage was either burned or chemically treated. And Beijing is not alone, landfill is still a major way to dispose of MSW in China. According to China’s National Bureau of Statistics, 55.9 per cent of garbage collected ended up inwhereas 39.3 per cent of the garbage was in 2017.
However, authorities cannot rely on landfills for much longer. Most are near maximum daily capacity and some are already overloaded. In 2017, the waste buried in Beijing’s landfills had exceeded 16 per cent of its capability.
After a landfill reaches its maximum capacity, operators usually restore the site by covering the mountain of rubbish with a thick layer of soil. Once the soil settles —— after about two years —— the site is opened to the public, usually as a park. The Laogang landfill in Pudong New Area of Shanghai handles 70 per cent of the city’s waste everyday. Below is a diagram showing how the landfill works.
Shanghai divides household waste into four categories: wet (household food), dry (residual waste), hazardous and recyclable waste. Slogans, tips and posters about the city’s new garbage sorting rules are everywhere, from office buildings, schools and kindergartens to residential communities, parks and shopping malls. But many Shanghainese are struggling to sort their rubbish correctly, as they are forced to abandon old habits and embrace new ones – which some feel are complicated or involve needless effort. Take a look at the following types of waste and drag them onto the correct trash bins to see how you would fare.
Shanghai divides household waste into four categories: wet (household food), dry (residual waste), hazardous and recyclable waste. Slogans, tips and posters about the city’s new garbage sorting rules are everywhere, from office buildings, schools and kindergartens to residential communities, parks and shopping malls. But many Shanghainese are struggling to sort their rubbish correctly, as they are forced to abandon old habits and embrace new ones – which some feel are complicated or involve needless effort. Take a look at the following types of waste and click on the correct answer to see how you would fare.
Some residents joke about the absurdity of the process by pointing to the disposal of cockroach traps and the city's favourite beverage, bubble tea.
Recently, Shanghai and Beijing rolled out smart recycling bins – receptacles which come complete with video cameras and scanners, and which are able to distinguish between categories of rubbish and collect waste disposal data. To use these bins, residents swipe smart cards. Those who sort their waste regularly earn cashable points, and those who do not might receive a visit from the neighbourhood committee.
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