From Trash to Treasure: Is there a cure for China’s trash problem?
The challenges to living a zero-waste life in China
Beautiful sunshine, neighbors walking dogs and children playing in a modest-sized garden is a description of an idyllic start to everyday life in China. It’s only 6:45 am and taking out the garbage is one of the most important aspects of my morning ritual. I want to adopt my Western military-style habit of sorting my plastic from cardboard, and my glass from paper.
But this time I’m in China and I can’t because there is only one bin outside my apartment building, not even a second for recyclables. I have no other choice but to commit the deadly sin and put all my rubbish into just a single bin.
When making my way, I catch sight of an elderly woman rummaging through the garbage bins picking out plastic bottles, polystyrene, and cardboard. Among a handful, it appears that becoming a soldier of China’s army of waste pickers is a full-time occupation.
These elderly could well be working either as part of city services paid by local governments or self-employed informal waste collectors. The duties of waste pickers should not be dismissed as unimportant, because they represent a demand for more improved, developed and diverse solutions to China’s ‘garbage sickness’.
Though to understand the extent of the opportunity, this requires an evaluation of the true scale of the issue. The trash problem is not limited to a mere handful of bins outside apartment buildings. Recyclable materials, sometimes in mass quantities, tossed away by shop-owners and keepers alike, are lining the streets without thinking about its destination or just assuming that eventually someone will ‘pick and collect’.
How does China measure up to European counterparts in terms of waste management
This culture of dumping waste in such a casual manner is different from that in England where each household is allocated three bins for recyclable waste, including glass, plastic, and cardboard.
Across the globe, countries are performing even better, for example, Belgium, Europe’s leading waste champion, where it is not uncommon to see many different bins in which to dispose of recyclable products. Displaying an arc of prismatic colors including white, green, brown, blue, yellow, red and black containers intended for specific types of waste lining many streets, such vibrant colors imposing on the backdrop of towns are a bold display of the country’s efforts to reduce waste.
Such an array of flamboyant colors is a rare occurrence of the streets in China with waste pickers in Nanjing, a city of 9 million people, recovering as much as eighty percent of the city's recyclables, around 500,000 metric tons, in 2015. (Source)
Although efforts to recycle are not wholly non-existent as evidence suggests that there are indeed pro-active attempts to combat the problem. Educational establishments, for example, encourage recycling actively by placing such disposal units in schools and universities. Research funding at universities has brought fruitful results, with waste-sorting robot arms currently being tried and tested by the Beijing Institute of Precision Mechatronics and Controls (source). Moreover, Western businesses, such as the Swedish-owned company H&M, have ramped up efforts in China by establishing a service to drop-off old clothes in-store.
China is, therefore, already learning from Western role models. In 2017, China's policy-making State Council outlined a strategy to promote ‘garbage sorting’ in major cities. Shanghai recently enforced strict new rules as part of a compulsory recycling program as part of the new Domestic Waste Management Law imposed on July 1, which requires residents to organize their trash into four categories: wet, dry, recyclable and toxic. As one of the largest and most populous cities in the world, it generates more than nine million metric tons of garbage every year. The mandatory scheme stipulates that households and corporate entities abide by the rubbish-sorting guidelines, imposing fines on individual culprits that violate the rules, which aims to implement a nationwide urban waste sorting system in 46 cities by 2025. (Source: here, here and here.)
This ambitious plan is not limited to first-tier cities in China, but smaller and less well-known areas are adopting similar proposals. According to a recent report, Guiyang, a city in China’s southern Guizhou province has recently commenced a garbage sorting, collection, transportation, and disposal system as part of a waste sorting plan 2018 to 2022 (source). This aims to cover 90 percent of households in the city.
This sort of new eco-dictatorship’ is, therefore, still rudimentary and, arguably, fragmented with Chinese cities and local governments adopting schemes, with varying degrees of effort. It can be understood against this current backdrop, then, that China is undergoing a transitional phase in its recycling revolution in a bid to introduce a formal recycling scheme from scratch.
China’s waste management in the context of East Asia and the Pacific
Further precedents for China are set by other countries in the region of East Asia and the Pacific. According to the World Bank, this area generated 468 million tons of waste in 2016, of which just under half originated from China. Although the data in question must be critiqued in the context of China as home to 61 percent of the region’s population. While China relies heavily on large armies of waste pickers, which comprise up to 5.6 million people in urban recycling, its Asian counterparts have experienced considerable success in establishing a reputation for its formal recycling schemes. (The full details of the data can be found here.)
Nicknamed as ‘garbage island’, Taiwan currently has one of the highest recycling rates in the world, taking the concept of ‘eco-dictatorship’ to a new level. This is owing to the establishment of an efficient compulsory recycling program that claims 55 percent of the trash collected from households with the capital, Taipei, achieving a rate of 60 percent.
Taiwan’s competitor, Japan, has also succeeded in establishing a unified, systematic recycling system. Japan’s Container, Packaging and Plastic Recycling Law is the driving force behind these measures, with examples of small towns such as the residents of Kamikatsu separating the waste into 34 separate categories. Through these efforts, the concept of recycling has been deeply cemented into Japanese culture as an essential and habitual skill.
Perhaps then, the issue for China needs to be analyzed in a cultural and educational context. Awareness of issues such as air quality and pollution has grown in recent years, but there is little emphasis on reducing excessive waste, especially among the young generation. And as the evidence indicates, China is lacking the resources, infrastructure and just the ‘know-how’ to impose a unified system of rules and regulations governing waste. Therefore, while critics believe the country is making half-hearted attempts at combating the global battle to reduce waste, is this really true?
Can China become a pioneer in green innovations?
China’s recycling systems are emerging and developing, but are still in a stage of infancy. Greater efforts could, therefore, drastically cut emissions and reduce waste. In tandem with this is China’s demand for foreign technology and consulting in the recycling industry, which is certainly ready to respond to pressure to address the country’s waste problem. With China’s innovative skills for adapting and improving technology from the West, this demonstrates that the relevant skills are readily available.
Technology is half of the solution but, as mentioned earlier, re-education and cultural changes are necessary for the long-term success of recycling projects. The younger Chinese generation is indoctrinated by consumerism under the guise of convenience in easy access to food and services driven by technology. For example, in 2018 a survey of 3,600 residents of major Chinese cities found that nearly three-quarters could not identify how to sort their trash for recycling properly. Perhaps, then, this is simply an issue of educating the up and coming next generation about how to recycle and the consequences of failing to adopt the habit?
Case Study: The Bulk House
With the premise that educating and engaging the youth is the answer to resolving the dilemma of China’s waste problem beyond that of a simple quick fix, the company dubbed ‘The Bulk House’, has spotted a niche.
The Beijing-based company, founded by Carrie Yu at the age of 16, aims to promote sustainable living in China. The Bulk House promotes zero waste living as a fashionable lifestyle choice that can be convenient. Products include a range of reusable, biodegradable, natural and vegan products, all of which are packaging-free. Opening three stores in Beijing, as well as online ventures on Taobao and Weidian, this expansion not only attests to their success but also consumer demand. (Source)
It has been battling the anti-plastic fight for over two years now, promoting zero-waste and minimalists lifestyles through its WeChat channel and a series of promotion events. Such marketing platforms are acting as tools to educate potential customers, with most of its WeChat articles receiving between 300 to 500 reads, occasionally reaching over 1500.
Although the number of waste crusaders joining the Bulk House community has proven more successful on Weibo, attracting over 2200 fans. Their micro- blog engages the hyper-digitally connected Chinese millennials generating a social enterprise where young adults comprise the majority of their readership.
The movement is gaining steam with comments from followers on Weibo giving each other support and advice about how to live a sustainable life. Comments such as ‘we can make a change!’, while others call on readers to ‘make a contribution to the earth’s ecological environment’ in a bid to create change.
Case Study: Little Yellow Dog (小黄狗环保科技)
The concept of creating a sense of community via online platforms to inform the next generation of practical tips and guidance about living a sustainable life is gaining momentum. Founded in 2017, the Small Yellow Dog company offers a new dynamic with the ‘Internet of things and intelligent recycling’ and other advanced technology to achieve the domestic-waste front-end classification. (Read more: here and here)
By downloading their APP, users can earn money for sorting garbage correctly, thus encouraging residents by providing financial incentives. The company not only provides such services but also sells products, such as recycling machines designed in the shape of a dog to capture children’s attention.
Their Weibo account has accumulated a similar degree of attention as that of The Bulk House with over 2000 fans, and around 500 reads each article. The company undoubtedly constitutes an achievement in innovative and creative efforts in educating and promoting recycling. With their micro-blog featuring humorous videos of performers singing and dancing while recycling, it gives its marketing strategy a clever and eye-catching edge to engaging the next generation of Chinese in sustainable living. Such strategies have been welcomed by fans commenting that the company provided ‘minute hardcore teaching garbage classification’ via their micro-blog. Other remarks indicate a growing sense of camaraderie among followers with promises to ‘live a green life one hundred percent’.
Marketing for the future: could green become China’s new red?
Both companies, The Bulk House and Little Yellow Dog, prove that advancements in technology combined with a sense of ‘community spirit’ dedicated to actively combatting waste, is driven by social media marketing campaigns. In both cases, sustainability is a core issue with these companies adapting business models around greener and more efficient design strategies to satisfy younger consumers, dubbed as ‘Generation Z’ who will inherit the role as "Caretakers of the planet".
China’s largest online store, Taobao, displays a vast range of recycled toys for children. Among the products include, Green science DIY experiment projects, which are not only made from recycled materials but teach children about the reasons why caring for the environment is so important. Such examples demonstrate that there is an eagerness to learn more about the implications of the recycling process, regarding the destination of the waste.
Though, with the help of Jack Ma, other digital efforts have received even greater support. My own hyper-connected millennial Chinese friends introduced me to Alipay’s lifestyle app known as ‘Ant Forest’ which rewards users with ‘green energy’ points in return for making environmentally friendly decisions in their daily lives. Indeed, I joined over 500 million users of the program which-to date has been responsible for planting 100 million trees, covering 933 square kilometers. Businessmen and celebrity influencers clearly play an important role in importing the concept of leading a sustainable life with the likes of even Xi Jinping urging citizens to sort their waste as part of a ‘fashionable new lifestyle’, according to the South China Morning Post.
While countries in Europe have experienced a rise of activists speaking up about environmental concerns, Chinese people rely heavily on the government to handle garbage sorting with as much convenience as possible. Thus, there is a demand for Western businesses to import green habits into Chinese culture.
Popular culture in the West is making a green life a good life as a reflection of a kind and compassionate person. It is only a matter of time when Chinese nationals will catch on to the trend and that sharing pictures of Starbucks and milk tea cups paper-to-go cups on Weibo profiles will become a thing of the past and replaced with images of being green.