Shanghai citizens out of sorts over new trash separation rules

SHANGHAI (Reuters) - Household trash has occupied the minds of Shanghai residents this week: specifically, are the contents of their bins “wet”, “dry”, “hazardous” or “recyclable”?

A man and a cleaner throw trash at a separate waste collection in Shanghai, China May 24, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer

Residents of the city, one of the world’s biggest with about 23 million people, must arrange their trash according to those labels under a mandatory sorting scheme starting on July 1.

China is in the sixth year of a “war on pollution” designed not only to clean up its skies, soil and water but also upgrade its heavy industrial economy and “comprehensively utilize” its resources, including waste.

Improving recycling rates is crucial to China’s strategy, and cities are trying to figure out what to do with the heaps of trash clogging up rivers or buried in hazardous landfills.

Huang Rong, deputy secretary general of the Shanghai government, said on Friday more than 70% of residential districts should be compliant with the new trash sorting rules by next year.

“We are just starting out and we are getting ordinary people used to the new system, so we don’t want to make it too complicated,” he told reporters.

Citizens, however, are finding the new system complicated enough, with every item of waste now under careful scrutiny, from receipts and half-eaten crayfish to soggy cups of “bubble tea.” Residents are also unhappy about getting their hands dirty.

“It’s really a lot of trouble,” said a 68-year old resident called Shen. “Plastic bags have to be put in one bin and if they are dirty they must be cleaned out, and then your hands get filthy. It’s really unhygienic.”

Though Shanghai has hired 1,700 instructors and conducted 13,000 training sessions, confused residents on social media are demanding to know how to sort items like batteries, human hair, meat on a bone, or fruit seeds and skins. The government has set up an app to handle enquiries.

Shanghai aims to eventually burn or recycle all waste. By next year, dry waste incineration and wet waste treatment rates are expected to reach 27,800 tonnes a day, around 80% of the city’s total garbage. The city will also restrict the amount of single-use plastic cutlery that food service companies give out, starting on Monday.

China is building hundreds of “waste to energy” plants that use garbage to generate power. It is also establishing a “waste-free city” scheme and constructing high-tech “comprehensive utilization bases” across the country.

It also slashed imported waste volumes -- once as much as 60 million tonnes a year -- to encourage recyclers to tackle growing volumes of domestic trash instead.

China first proposed a trash sorting system in 2000, identifying Shanghai, Beijing and six others as pilot cities, but guidelines to implement the scheme nationwide were not issued until 2017.

Parliamentarians warned in March that China still needs more time to roll out the plan nationally, with the country still needing to build infrastructure, improve incentives and standardize fees.

The biggest challenge is likely to be in rural regions, which not only lack the infrastructure to deal with conventional trash, but also have to handle fertilizer, pesticide and feed waste, as well as the plastic mulch used in the countryside to boost yields.

Shanghai has already had some teething problems, with some districts reporting truck and land space shortages. Huang of the Shanghai government warned the new sorting measures were just the beginning, and would not instantly resolve Shanghai’s mounting garbage challenges.

“We need to step up the propaganda, and we need to step up the construction of infrastructure and guarantee that the separation of trash meets our requirements,” he said.

Additional reporting by Shanghai newsroom; editing by Christian Schmollinger