Is mandatory garbage sorting working in China?

Three years after Shanghai imposed mandatory sorting of household waste, we review the successes and failures of the policy and ask what’s yet to come.

A man stands on a mound of garbage at a landfill on the outskirts of Shanghai. Image: Zixi Wu, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

China started small-scale trials of waste sorting in 2000, but landfill sites and unmanaged waste continued to encircle cities and local people protested plans to build more incinerators. Gradually, environmental organisations and some local governments came to realise the only way out was sorting and recycling to reduce the need for burning.

In 2018, President Xi Jinping said on a visit to Shanghai that “waste handling requires everyone’s participation.” In July the following year, the city became China’s first to make sorting household waste compulsory. A number of other cities have followed in Shanghai’s footsteps in the three years since, imposing mandatory sorting, and almost 300 now implement some form of sorting.

The necessity of sorting has been confirmed time and again, but the idea still encounters public resistance when imposed by the state. Some question whether it is fair or economic to make people take on responsibilities that “the state should bear” or whether top-down imposition regardless of circumstances will work in the long-term. Others complain of a lack of transparency and dialogue from the Shanghai government.

They compare that unfavourably with the handling of protests over five incinerators in Panyu, Guangzhou, which exhibited transparent decision-making and openness to dialogue. They complain of a collapse in relations between the people and government over the past decade.

Some objections are not without merit. Local governments are keen to declare success in changing behaviour while there is a notable lack of information on whether that waste, dutifully sorted into coloured containers, is actually handled differently.

The government says the aims of waste sorting are to reduce waste quantities, recover resources and remove harms. Sorting is clearly just one link in the chain. Reduction needs to happen at source, before packaging and other future waste reaches the home, while proper handling and processing of materials for re-use can only be done after sorting. Unfortunately, publicity and debate has focused on the duty of local people to sort their waste. There is little discussion on whether or not those three government aims are being met, or on the government’s responsibilities.

If we treat waste sorting like we treated the pandemic, just spending as much money and administrative resources as it takes, then we can’t claim to be doing a world-class job.

Liu Jianguo, professor, Tsinghua University’s School of Environment

The Covid-19 pandemic has presented an extra challenge for waste sorting, especially when lockdowns tightened up in the latter half of 2021. All the talk of waste sorting seemed to fade away.

So, what has happened over these three years? And what still needs to be done to achieve the original aims?

Community sorting: Diminishing returns and resistance

Shanghai was in a Covid-19 lockdown for more than two months from late March to early June 2022. Residents were stuck inside, communities sealed off, most public services ground to a halt. With the collapse in public services, and the loss of a “sense of control over life” causing reluctance or even refusal to fulfil personal responsibilities, local media asked how waste sorting could ever start up again. But it happened, and faster than might have been expected.

Hao Liqiong is joint founder of Aifen Environmental Protection, a non-profit which since 2012 has been working to promote waste sorting. She says 7,000 tonnes of food waste were being separated by citizens daily only three weeks after the lockdown ended, compared to 9,600 tonnes before it started. “The authorities were surprised,” she said. “They didn’t expect sorting to pick up so quickly.”

By August, waste sorting was back at the same levels of August the previous year, according to the city’s landscaping and urban appearance bureau, which has responsibility for waste handling. The exception was waste from restaurant kitchens, which was still being affected by the lockdown.

Hao says it was no easy task for Shanghai, a city of almost 30 million people, to get to this point, and it is doing better than any other in China.

In August, Aifen Environmental Protection published a report on evaluation systems for local waste-sorting efforts across the country, finding that there is more focus on high scores than actual implementation. The outcomes of those evaluations are rarely published in full, making public oversight hard.

In some cities, communities invest significant labour and funds in careful checking of waste in order to ensure high scores. If locals are uncooperative, staff may be employed for a “second sort”. The scoring system itself focuses on process rather than outcomes: how many bin stores are built and how much publicity is carried out, for example, rather than rates of sorting and recycling.

According to Hao, there are wide gaps in implementation between different cities. Some are working hard, while others drag their feet. One worrying phenomena, she says, is that cities that have made more progress, such as Shanghai and Xiamen, are making increasing investments for decreasing returns to get better scores and rankings. Despite this, recycling is failing and sorted food waste and recyclables are not being properly utilised. Many cities struggle with both collection and disposal.

“We thought changing people’s behaviour would be the most difficult bit,” said Hao. “But that turned out to be easy. What’s difficult is changing the government’s public services.”

Where does all the food waste go?

Li Yanming is an associate professor at China Agricultural University’s College of Resources and Environmental Sciences. This year, his team studied the use of food waste in more than ten Chinese cities, trying to find out why so many contaminants are found in “sorted” food waste.

They looked at the sorting, collection and handling of that waste. At the sorting stage, they found that while over 90 per cent of respondents said they were willing to sort waste, only 18–21 per cent reported actually doing it. When it came to collection, they found waste was less likely to get mixed up with other waste in cities like Shanghai and Beijing which can afford dedicated food waste trucks. Elsewhere, it was common for waste to become mixed.

They also found that scoring systems work on administrative boundaries. Communities, neighbourhoods and districts get scored, while the waste transporters working across districts don’t. The mixing of waste is therefore harder to identify.

Then comes waste disposal and re-use. Li’s team looked at data from the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development and found that less than 17 per cent of cities of prefecture level or higher have the facilities to handle food waste. “So what if they mix the types of waste?” he says. “It won’t make any difference.”

Where those facilities do exist, capacity is being outstripped by the growth in demand. Li offers Beijing’s Haidian district as an example. Prior to making waste-sorting mandatory, the district could handle 200 tonnes of food waste a day, mostly from catering. Now there are 400 or 500 tonnes of food waste to deal with every day. Even running at full capacity, only 300 tonnes can be processed.

Li says facilities for handling food waste are still being built, a process which will take two or three years to complete. Until the needed capacity is in place, food waste will be incinerated, sent to landfill, or fed into sewage-treatment plants.

Some incinerators were built with food waste in mind. The water content reduces temperatures and so avoids damage to equipment. Incinerator managers often add in food waste for that reason. This helps get rid of some of the food waste that the dedicated facilities can’t handle.

Li thinks that having adequate capacity for all the food waste isn’t enough. It is also important to make good use of the outputs from the processing.

Li explains that 80 per cent of food-waste handling in China uses anaerobic digestion to break down organic matter. This creates a mix of digestate and biogas consisting mainly of methane. The methane can be burned to generate power and ideally the digestate will be used as fertiliser. But, Li warns, there is currently nowhere for the digestate to go. It smells too bad to use on urban greenery and is not yet certified by the Ministry of Agriculture for agricultural use.

The solid portion of the digestate often ends at the incinerator, while the liquid portion goes through reverse osmosis to clean it. This means extra cost and energy usage. Also, the incinerator slag produced from food waste or solid digestate is rich in calcium, magnesium and phosphorous. If buried in landfill, the slag can cause eutrophication of nearby bodies of water, and if burned the toxic fumes can affect nearby residents.

Li thinks the only way to avoid harm is to ensure all waste is turned into resources. Returning food waste – and the organic material and nutrients it contains – to the soil will prevent it becoming sludge and water and air pollution. He and his team have proposed a “community organic cycle” method.

Communities, businesses and government can compost the food and garden waste they produce, and then use that compost on site. This low-tech method could save the costs of removing waste and buying in fertiliser (as well as the pollution arising from fertiliser use). The load on waste transportation would be reduced, along with the risk of types of waste becoming mixed, and the above-mentioned harms would be avoided.

He thinks a full roll-out of this approach in China’s cities would cut in half the need to transport food waste. But his calculations show there is only so much demand for compost in urban areas. Further expanding the model will require agricultural use of the compost.

Incineration: Subsidy-driven expansion

Despite the advent of waste sorting, China still incinerates most of its waste. Growth of incineration capacity is outstripping demand, even though sorting is meant to reduce that demand and so avoid local objections to incineration plants.

According to data presented at an online seminar in June by Li Jiacheng, a researcher with the Wuhu Ecological Centre, incineration capacity in Chinese cities and county seats reached 160 million tonnes a year in 2020. By the end of 2021, national capacity had reached 280 million tonnes a year.

At least ten province-level jurisdictions can now incinerate more waste than they can collect and transport, and five had mid- to long-term plans which will see them able to incinerate 100 per cent of their waste. Li points out that this could lead to facilities lying idle, and “lock in” disincentives to sort and reduce waste.

Two factors are driving the expansion in incineration.

First, China classes these waste-to-power plants as renewable “biopower” and that means a 0.65 yuan subsidy per kilowatt hour of electricity generated. Li points out that while plastics, rubber and fabrics make up little of the dry weight of what is burned, they contribute the bulk of the heat value and also release fossil-source carbon. Therefore, he says, waste-to-power plants should not be classed as “biopower”.

The classification runs contrary to attempts to sort biological material – food waste – and remove it from incineration. This may hamper waste-sorting efforts. Many Chinese environmental organisations argue incineration of household waste to generate power should not attract renewable subsidies.

Second, in China, waste-to-power plants are seen as a double win on emissions reduction: power is generated without burning fossil fuels, and food waste is burned instead of being sent to landfill where it could create methane – a greenhouse gas – as it rots.

But research from No Incinerators, an environmental organisation, shows that in 2019–2020 net carbon emissions per kilowatt hour for major waste-to-power firms were, at 2.032–3.622 kilograms, far higher than the 2020 average for the grid (0.583 kgs) or even for coal power (0.853 kgs). So, while waste-to-power projects may replace fossil fuel generation, they actually emit more carbon. According to research by Wuhu Ecological Centre, energy efficiency at China’s waste-to-power firms is commonly lower than 65 per cent, and by EU standards that is classed as “disposal” rather than “energy recovery”.

Other research by No Incinerators has found that claims incineration avoids the production of methane rely on assuming very high levels of production in landfill sites. A review of 29 Chinese Certified Emission Reduction (CCER) incineration projects approved in 2016 and 2017 found that all used landfill sites without gas capture systems as a baseline for comparison.

They also all dismissed other practical solutions which would have produced less emissions, such as recovery of landfill gas or only sending food waste to landfill after some recycling. Those selective comparisons allowed the projects to pass as “reducing emissions”.

With CCER approvals, suspended in 2017, being set to restart, environmental organisations hope to see this loophole plugged to avoid waste-to-power projects squeezing out other approaches that would have greater impact on emissions.

Qu Ruijing, an expert on green and low-carbon strategy, told China Dialogue that incineration is currently seen as harm-free. But he thinks that label shouldn’t be applied to techniques or equipment; it is a goal, an aim to reduce environmental impact. “You can’t just build an incinerator and say that’s harm-free. That will lead to facilities being built regardless of profitability and the availability of fuel. That will lead to plant owners turning to the government for subsidies. It also ignores the ‘producer pays’ mechanism,” he said.

What’s next?

Hao Liqiong says the reason why all the publicity and data is currently focused on community waste sorting, transportation and incineration, is because these all fall under the remit of the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development. She applauds the progress made in big cities like Shanghai, but points out that maintaining separation of waste during disposal and resource recovery needs cooperation with other ministries. In particular, cooperation is needed with the commerce authorities, which manage the circular economy, and the agricultural authorities, which could complete the chain by providing use cases for processed food waste.

In a speech given last year, Zhou Chuanbin, a researcher at the China Academy of Sciences’ Research Centre for Eco-Environmental Sciences, said that China was taking too narrow an approach to resource recovery for recyclables such as plastics.

This means low-value recyclables are not being recovered, the number of distribution centres is falling, and transportation costs are rising. He recommended linking up the waste disposal and resources recycling networks to reduce the costs of collection, and using subsidies and tax breaks to encourage the recycling of low-value materials, thereby reducing the externalities arising from their incineration or landfill burial.

Liu Jianguo, a professor at Tsinghua University’s School of Environment, told China Dialogue that the two systems have not been combined as hoped and continue to operate independently. But he added that the waste-sorting systems have made data available on the quantities and destination of recyclables. Previously, these were not monitored.

Li Yanming was promoting the use of urban food waste to make agricultural fertiliser even before the sorting systems were introduced. For years, he’s seen how cross-departmental cooperation is a problem. He says the agricultural authorities are wary of city governments trying to offload their waste problems. This, he warns, means departmental barriers are preventing the circular economy from taking shape.

Liu Jianguo has seen similar problems: “Each department has its own set roles and positions, its division of interests, and its way of looking at things.” He says that local governments have, in the short term, set up command centres or joint committees, with higher-level leaders pushing progress through. That only works as a “war-time mechanism”, he said. In the long-term, reforms will be needed to normalise the new systems. “Some kind of cross-departmental coordination mechanism would make things easier,” he added.

When asked what China still needs to do to create a world-class system for dealing with waste, Liu Jianguo said: “The easy things have already been done.” Next come: an extended producer responsibility system; charging for waste disposal – with the immediate producer of waste paying by quantity produced; and regional and urban–rural integration – with an ecological compensation system, so areas with adequate capacity can dispose of waste for areas without, and cities can dispose of rural waste.

“China has the advantage of being able to push through significant investment in short periods of time, with impressive results. But the more advanced cities have already done the easy parts. Long-term effectiveness will require taking advantage of how the market and society works. If we treat waste sorting like we treated the pandemic, just spending as much money and administrative resources as it takes, then we can’t claim to be doing a world-class job,” Liu said.

Can the government alone bring about these changes? How can we ensure the changes actually reduce waste quantities, realise resource recovery, and remove harms?

If waste sorting is a job for the people as a whole, that means the people have a right to participate in decision making and oversight. Many industry observers say that public participation has been missing these three years. Some of the organisations mentioned above are providing examples of how to participate – but more is needed.

This article was originally published on China Dialogue under a Creative Commons licence.

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