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Beijing gets tough on trash

Why We Wrote This

It’s a perennial problem for governments across the world: how to encourage best practices like recycling. After trying incentives, China’s authoritarian government is now turning to punitive measures. 

Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters/File
Workers sort out plastic PET bottles, which are made from a form of polyester, at Asia's largest PET plastic recycling factory, INCOM Resources Recovery, in Beijing.

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Beijingers are not very good at sorting their garbage for recycling, but for now it doesn’t matter that much; an army of migrant worker trash pickers is there to do the job for them. It won’t be for long, though, as consumers are generating more and more trash, and the authorities are kicking migrants out of the capital. The government has tried all sorts of ways to encourage Beijing residents to go green, including reverse vending machines that award mobile phone credits in return for plastic bottles, but none of them have worked. So this week the country’s top policymaking body announced that if city dwellers are not sorting their trash properly by 2020 the government will charge them a fee to do it for them. That’s bad news for the trash pickers, who are being squeezed out of the market, and it is by no means certain that Beijingers will behave more responsibly even under duress. But “this is a good starting point,” says one environmental activist.

Liang Jiong spends most of his life rummaging through other people’s trash. He’s in search of anything that he can peddle to local middlemen, who sell it on to recycling plants: cardboard boxes, plastic bottles, and aluminum cans.

“Time is money,” he shouted one recent morning as he raced from one trash can to another in his electric three-wheeled cart. Not much money: Mr. Liang says he earns just $450 a month – one-third of the average Beijing salary – by working 10 hours a day, seven days a week.

But it is a regular income he can count on thanks to an irrefutable fact of life in Beijing: the vast majority of the city’s 22 million residents don’t recycle. “Most people in Beijing think sorting trash is too troublesome,” Liang says. “They prefer to let scavengers like me do it for them.” 

That will soon change if the Chinese government gets its way. Over the last two years, the authorities have pushed to bring under their control a recycling system that has long relied on an informal network of trash collectors like Liang. But that approach is failing as the number of scavengers declines and the amount of household waste rises. So the Chinese government is hoping to convince local residents to pick up the slack.

“People’s awareness about sorting trash needs to be strengthened,” Yang Haiying, a deputy director at the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, said at a news conference in Beijing last Friday. “The practice of sorting household waste still isn’t widespread."

Going green by diktat?

The government announced last year that it would make it compulsory for householders in 46 cities, including the capital, to sort their own garbage by the end of 2020. Last Monday the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), the country’s most powerful regulatory agency, announced that all cities and towns will begin charging householders a fee for waste management by then too, if they don't manage it themselves.

Creating new laws and regulations is the easy part in China’s authoritarian political system. The hard part will be persuading consumers to adopt greener habits as the army of scavengers shrinks under pressure from the Beijing city government, which has shut down polluting processing facilities and kicked out tens of thousands of migrant workers. 

Beijing poses the biggest challenge to China’s new waste management campaign. The capital is the biggest municipal producer of trash in the country, throwing out nine million tons of household waste last year. That is about twice as much as a decade ago – one of the most tangible indicators of China’s rapidly swelling consumer class.

A study by Beijing's Renmin University published last year estimates that the cost of processing waste in Beijing could have been cut by 64 percent in 2015 if waste sorting by household had been enforced.

The city government has been trying in vain for nearly two decades to promote residential sorting. Since 2010, it has recruited more than 20,000  “Green Armband” volunteers to teach people how to sort their garbage. Last Friday, Mr. Yang said that his ministry will conduct public education campaigns, especially for students, to raise citizens’ consciousness. 

Making nice makes no difference

The fee system announced this week is the most aggressive step China has taken so far. Up until now, the government has largely relied on incentive programs to encourage people to sort their waste. 

In 2014, for example, Beijing installed reverse vending machines throughout the city that offered mobile phone minutes or public transport credits in exchange for plastic bottles. 

Earlier this year, the district of Xicheng launched a pilot program that awards points to residents for properly sorting their household waste and dropping it off to trash collectors at designated times. The points can be exchanged for small prizes such as toilet paper, toothpaste, and shampoo. 

But these voluntary initiatives have not made much difference. Beijingers habitually ignore public recycling bins and the waste sorting bins – labeled “kitchen waste,” “recyclables,” and “other waste” – that are increasingly common in the city’s residential districts. 

Chen Liwen, a co-founder of China Zero Waste Alliance, an environmental non-governmental organization, predicts that this will change once the waste management fees are formally introduced. In its announcement on Monday, the NDRC said householders would be charged according to the quantity and nature of their garbage. (Though the agency did not explain how the authorities might monitor residents’ trash-sorting, nor how they would be punished for unsatisfactory performance.)

“This is a good starting point,” Mr. Chen says. “You need to change people’s attitudes, but you also need to change the system and the infrastructure.” 

To that end, China’s new ban on all imports of 24 types of trash from abroad, including plastics and paper, will allow it to focus on doing a better job disposing of its own waste.

A waste of money?

The government has said it plans to invest more than $31 billion in household waste management between 2016 and 2020. Beijing alone has shut a thousand illegal landfills and quadrupled its incineration capacity in recent years, according to official figures.

The government’s target is for 35 percent of household waste in large Chinese cities to be recycled by 2020. But it’s not just individual households that will have to do a better job than the scavengers if that target is to be met.

Beijing residents have reported seeing sorted bins being emptied into a single municipal garbage truck, leaving them wondering where their trash really ends up. 

“It’s not only about people’s awareness,” says Zhao Zhangyuan, a retired researcher at the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences, who is skeptical of Beijing’s commitment to waste management.

One of the biggest challenges facing the government, he warns, is to reassure householders that they are not sorting their trash in vain. “If all of the garbage is taken to the landfill at the end of the day,” he points out, “it is useless for people to sort it at home.”

 Xie Yujuan contributed to this report.

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