The world’s top producer of plastic waste has gone on the offensive to ensure a greener future for its citizens. If China succeeds, it could offer lessons for the rest of the globe.
Over the past few years, the phrase “war on waste” has been popping up frequently in Chinese media headlines. Last year, China’s state news agency Xinhua described tackling the waste problem as “a tough and drawn out battle.” The campaign began in March 2017, when the Chinese central government set out a waste sorting plan with the goal of recycling 35% of municipal solid waste in 46 of the country’s major cities by 2020.
Shanghai and Beijing, the two largest cities, have since amended the municipal rules to enforce mandatory waste classification – in July 2019 and May 2020, respectively. In January this year, a state commission announced another ambitious goal: to eliminate all non-biodegradable plastic bags across the country by 2025.
Drowning in rubbish
The Chinese government has many valid reasons to make such dramatic moves, and many would argue that these measures have come rather late. Although China has been drowning in rubbish for decades, the country still lacks a nationwide recycling regime and depends heavily on private scavengers to collect recyclable waste from public rubbish bins and people’s homes.
Before the authorities started banning imports of solid waste in 2018, China was a scrapyard accommodating half of the world’s rubbish. In addition to the vast imports of waste, China also churns out overwhelming amounts of waste itself. Driven by skyrocketing growth in consumption and rapid urbanisation over the past 30 years, China, home to one-fifth of the global population, produces the most plastic waste in the world.
Although many countries have a higher per capita rate of plastic waste generation than China, its lack of waste incineration plants and a proper recycling system has led to overwhelmed landfills and heavy pollution.
The Jiangcungou Landfill, the largest landfill in China at a size of 100 football fields, was designed to operate for half of a century but met its capacity after only 25 years. Considering that it takes up to 1,000 years for single-use plastics to degrade in a landfill or the environment, the scale of pollution is unquestionably massive.
A sense of responsibility
While some remain doubtful about how effective the new measures are and whether the Chinese government will be able to hit its seemingly far-fetched target, promising progress has been seen in Shanghai, the first city in China to roll out compulsory waste sorting.
In 2019, the government of Shanghai introduced a separate collection scheme dividing household rubbish into four categories: recyclable, hazardous, perishable and dry waste. Statistics released by the local authorities in July show that one year after the launch of the new rule, the waste sorting rate has increased from 15% to over 90%.
According to Jue Wang, senior environmental specialist at UPM and a Shanghai resident, the establishment of a clear waste collection routine, the numerous volunteers in every community providing guidance, and the wide distribution of public recycling bins in the city are the keys to the new programme’s success.
The citizens of Shanghai got used to the new system and developed good recycling habits very quickly. Now, they even proactively look for waste sorting bins when travelling to other cities in China.
The results of a study by a research team from Fudan University in Shanghai focusing on long-lasting waste sorting behaviour echo Wang’s observation. The research group has been closely following the waste sorting process in six communities in Shanghai since last year, and found that once people realise they bear the responsibility for sorting waste, they are more likely to continue to recycle even without supervision and potential sanctions like fines.
According to the data provided by the Shanghai government, when the recycling guidance volunteers withdrew from the local communities in March amid the coronavirus pandemic, two-thirds of Shanghai residents still maintained their waste sorting practice.
More effort required
Despite the impressive advancement in recycling observed in Shanghai, China’s waste problem is still urgent thanks to the growing use of plastic packaging, especially from the food delivery and e-commerce business, two of the fastest growing sectors in the country.
Meituan, the largest food-delivery group in China, revealed in August that its platform alone processed more than 40 million orders per day. According to an estimation by Greenpeace China, every food delivery on average involves 3.27 units of single-use plastic containers, which means at a minimum, more than 130 million units of non-degradable plastic bags or boxes are put into use every day by the food delivery industry in China.
The situation does not look any brighter in the e-commerce industry, where almost 34% of the delivery packages use plastics. Although many of these materials are recyclable, research conducted by Greenpeace last year found that 95% of such plastic packaging is burnt or buried along with household waste due to its low recycle value. Even under the new recycling regime in Shanghai, plastic packaging materials are classified as dry waste and excluded from the official recycling system.
Damin Tang, a campaigner at Greenpeace East Asia, thinks that more efforts are needed from the e-commerce companies since simply replacing single-use plastics with recyclable materials is not enough. “To reduce the amount of delivery packaging waste, we need a systemic reform of the whole delivery process,” says Tang. Several small-scale pilot projects in this direction have been launched. For example, some delivery companies in China now offer “shared express boxes”, which can be reused for multiple deliveries.
Since paper is easier to be recycled and biodegraded at the end of its lifetime, new paper packaging materials might also contribute to waste reduction in China. As more advanced technology is introduced in the production process, paper packaging is expected to be lighter, more waterproof and cost-effective to replace plastic packaging while meeting the needs of all industries. “In terms of recyclability, degradability and renewability, paper is still considered a more sustainable material than biodegradable plastics,” explains Wang.
The crux of the solution, however, may lie in Chinese consumers’ awareness of sustainability. With China’s food-order and e-commerce businesses still expected to grow, experts worry that the country’s battle with waste is only becoming harder. While Shanghai’s success is noteworthy, it remains to be seen whether other cities with fewer resources can duplicate the city’s success in waste sorting.
“The real key is to consume less,” says Wang. “But if we can’t consume less, we can at least start using more sustainable packaging materials.” As shown at this year’s China Packaging Container Expo, an increasing number of packaging manufacturers in China are now making efforts in downgauging packaging, using more recyclable or recycled materials, and replacing fossil-based materials with renewable and biodegradable ones.