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China is cracking the whip on its waste problem (and I’m feeling it)

Sometime last month, I arrived at work to find a notice plastered over our office doors in Shanghai.

It was a letter of warning from the building management, telling us that we had failed to sort our garbage. More importantly, it said we would be slapped with a fine of 50,000 yuan (S$9,704) by the municipal government if we violate the rules for – I’m ashamed to admit this – the third time.

Our office is rubbish at waste sorting. This was never more evident than when new regulations on waste management and recycling kicked in throughout the city in July, with Shanghai leading the charge in China’s big clean-up drive.

The government wants to formalise an urban waste sorting system by 2020, with 46 major cities, including the financial capital, to recycle 35 per cent of their waste by then.

All trash in Shanghai now has to be separated into four categories: wet waste (household food), dry waste (residual waste), recyclable waste, and hazardous waste.

This seems like an uphill task for the city, which generates about 26,000 tons of garbage every day from over 24 million residents – most of whom have never been properly acquainted with the concept of waste sorting and recycling.

But the penalties for non-compliance will be painful. Businesses that flout the rules will have to pay a steep fine of between 50,000 to half a million yuan, while individuals will be charged 200 yuan or even receive a lower social credit rating.

Cleaning up its act

In my colleagues’ and my defence, trash sorting in Shanghai is complicated.

General rubbish bins have become a thing of the past. Instead, everyone has to go to designated trash collection stations to dispose of various waste during designated periods of the day.

But into which bin would you throw crayfish shells? Used bubble tea cups? Expired medicine? Surely it is not intuitive that fish bones are to be categorised as wet waste, and pork bones as dry waste?

Back in Singapore, the only kind of waste sorting we’re used to is merely between general (all kinds of waste) and recyclable waste. Even within the latter, everything from plastic bottles to tin cans to paper cartons fit into the same recycling bin that has been increasingly popping up in residential estates.

To educate businesses and residents in Shanghai on how to sort their garbage correctly, the municipal government has organised training lessons and deployed tens of thousands of volunteers to supervise trash collection. There is also an app for the public to ask about specific items.

Netizens have come up with their own rule of thumb to make the process simpler: Everything that a pig can eat – throw it into the wet waste bin. Whatever else it can’t should go into the dry waste bin.

If the pig is likely to die from eating the waste, it is hazardous. If the trash can be sold and the money used to buy a pig, it is recyclable.

Complicated or not, the new waste classification policy stands, and the municipal government is showing its resolve to enforce it – with the whip. Closed circuit television cameras have been put up at waste disposal areas to pick out those that don’t follow the rules, and then, of course, there are the fines.

As many as 190 fines were issued in the first week after the new rules came into effect. The five-star hotels were not spared.

Cracking the “green” whip

A lecturer in the department of China Studies at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou, Geoffrey Chun-fung Chen, has described China’s clean-up act in a recent article as “authoritarian environmentalism”.

“It’s not environmentally based consciousness from the bottom. It’s a sort of eco-dictatorship, a very strange but somehow effective mode of governance,” he said.

For China, meting out new policies with a heavy hand is not uncommon.

Just look at its crackdown on corruption and systemic risks in the financial sector over recent years. The government seized Baoshang Bank Co in May, citing serious credit risks given the misappropriation of funds by Baoshang’s largest shareholder. It was China’s first bank takeover in two decades.

Yet such forcefulness is helping to pave the way for more much-needed reform in the sector. And it could do the same for waste management across the country.

China is now in the sixth year of its “war on pollution” as it moves to fix its pollution problem – from phasing out the use of coal to improving recycling rates – at a time when many other countries are also taking action to do more for the environment.

Singapore, for instance, has declared 2019 the Year of Zero Waste. The government so far has taken the “carrot-dangling” approach, with efforts focused on raising awareness and teaching citizens how to recycle right – one possible reason why household recycling rates have remained stagnant for more than a decade.

Unlike Japan or Taiwan, the green stalwarts of Asia, mainland China is late to the recycling game. But its powerful use of the stick could well allow it to catch up and clean out its trash problem more efficiently and effectively than others.

This article is also published in the 11 October 2019 edition of TodayONLINE at:

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