Observations on the first half year of waste-sorting in Shanghai

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On July 1, 2019, Shanghai launched a “first shot” at the classification of domestic waste. The Shanghai Municipal Regulations on domestic waste, the most stringent ever released in China, stipulate that domestic waste must be sorted into four categories: dry waste, wet waste, recyclable waste and hazardous waste. Individuals and enterprises will be fined 50-200 yuan and 5,000-50,000 Yuan respectively if they are found to mix the different kinds of waste.

An article published last Monday by Southern Weekly (南方周末), China’s most well-known investigative newspaper, has summed up the first 180 days of the new policy. According to the article, few people were initially optimistic about waste classification in Shanghai. However, a government report on the management of waste classification, released on November 14, determined that the overall effect has been better than expected.

The Southern Weekly article asks if there are any lessons to be learnt from Shanghai’s experience with waste-sorting. Based partly on investigations by the paper’s journalists, it reaches four main conclusions:

1. Always keep it in mind that waste-sorting is a matter of consciousness and management, so there is no direct relation between the success of waste classification and the type of residential area or the composition of the residents.

2. The community management offices have been producing blacklists of those who don’t obey the rules, and also publishing their photos on the community billboard.

3. The imposition of fines is a sharp weapon in the hands of the new waste-sorting policy. By the end of November 2019, a total of 3401 fines had been issued for waste classification, for a value of about 1.64 million yuan. Also, the information on the violators will be included in the social credit system, in accordance with the law.

4. Waste sorting is only beneficial at the end of the line, but it does not reduce waste at the source. This means that the reduction should start from the beginning, transforming the whole chain of waste generation, including a change in the residents’ attitudes, behaviours and habits.