They are unlikely foot soldiers in an increasingly prosperous China's battle against trash: The elderly women poking through overflowing trash cans and fishing out soda cans and plastic bottles, as well as the old men who pile waste paper and cardboard high on rickety pushcarts, eking out a livelihood by finding recyclable treasure.
It seems that China, which does a brisk business in importing and disposing of Western trash, has been caught off-guard by how fast its own homegrown garbage is building up. After all, this is a country that is traditionally thrifty, and famine and deprivation are still very much in most people’s living memories.
But as China’s economy barrels onward, waste, a byproduct of prosperity, is piling up. And there's little structure in place to deal with it – aside from the trash pickers. Hong Kong is competitive with the world's developed economies in churning out garbage according to figures based off a 2009 survey by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Last year, an estimated 2,000 pounds per person of garbage, a quarter of which was food waste, was tossed out in Hong Kong. That outdid the Americans, who on average ditched about 1,700 pounds of trash.
“As the government has tried to foster recycling enterprises, the scale of those enterprises is no match to the sheer volume of trash being generated day in and day out,” says Hahn Chu, environmental affairs manager of Friends of the Earth in Hong Kong.
Indeed, in cities across China, efforts to recycle garbage are mostly baby steps, according to observers.
In major cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, recycling bins are a common sight, but most serve as spare trash cans. There's no consistent pickup service by municipal workers. Mostly, scavengers looking to make some pocket change do the job.
As one of the wealthiest cities in China, Hong Kong has set up an ambitious recycling industrial area called EcoPark to handle the problem. However, EcoPark has so far remained almost empty. The program focuses on waste reduction and recovery: One project is dedicated to turning glass bottles into sand to pave city's sidewalks. However, only a handful of hotels and public housing developments actually recycle glass bottles.
And even when Chinese do take recycling seriously, the government’s track record on green initiatives makes it difficult to trust that their own efforts aren’t in vain.
Beijing is now in the middle of a drive – the fifth over the past 15 years – to separate food waste and recyclables from other household waste. The previous efforts failed because the municipal officials didn’t treat the sorted trash properly, says Zhang Boju, a researcher with China’s oldest environmental group, Friends of Nature. “There’s a trust gap between the citizens and the government. This gap is the big challenge for the solid waste sorting in Beijing.”
To be sure, many countries grapple with waste problems, but both environmentalists and scholars in China attribute wanton waste disposal here to a low level of environmental awareness.
That could change, they say, pointing to a growing resistance from citizens against incinerators in Guangzhou and Hong Kong, a sentiment that could pressure officials to follow Hong Kong’s example and implement an effective waste sorting and recycling system.
In some of the most prosperous cities, government officials recently began to penalize those who fail to sort their trash properly. For instance, as of April, residents in a dozen Guangzhou suburbs had to start sorting their trash into separate bins meant for recyclables, kitchen waste, hazardous waste, and other waste. Those who don’t comply will face a fine of up to 500 yuan (about $78).
Mr. Zhang, of Friends of Nature, hopes this get-tough approach might eventually work for the rest of the country. “Guangzhou will be a good model of garbage sorting for China,” he says.