By Phyllis Brown
NANJING, China — Imagine starting your day with women in red vests prodding at your garbage, eager to know what kind of trash you generate. Such has been the reality for Shanghai’s 24 million residents since the city launched a new trash-sorting law in July 2019. Residents must now sort household trash into four categories before disposing of it at specific locations during specific time periods each day, often under the scrutiny of neighborhood dama, a term of endearment for the older women who volunteer to monitor trash disposal.
南京，中国 — 要是每天出门就得面对小区的几位大妈志愿者一句响亮的“你是啥垃圾？”，还得目睹她们翻遍你所携带的垃圾，感受会如何呢？听起来可笑，但自从上海市在7月份出台了垃圾分类法，以上情景就瞬间变成将近2400万上海居民的尴尬现实。具体来说，根据法律规定，上海市民必须先自行对垃圾进行分类，然后定时定点地在保洁员同大妈志愿者的谨慎监督下，将垃圾投放于小区内新装置的垃圾投放站。
The new law has ushered in several innovations. China’s tech giants launched artificial intelligence-based applications to help residents classify their trash. The city is gradually introducing a rewards system, whereby compliant residents earn points that can be redeemed for basic household items. These innovations have already made an impact. In November, only 120 days after Shanghai introduced mandatory waste-sorting, the city was recovering 4,500 tons in recyclables daily, a five-fold increase from 2018.
But Shanghai boasted of a bustling waste-to-resource industry decades before the new law, thanks to the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers from the neighboring provinces of Anhui and Jiangsu. As informal recyclers, their livelihoods revolve around obtaining, sorting and trading discarded recyclables. These men and women can be found riding tricycles piled with cardboard to collection points throughout Shanghai each day. New regulations and innovations threaten this subset of China’s large informal economy, which has accounted for over half of urban employment in recent years.
The last few years have been difficult for informal recyclers. A 2017 report by Shanghai-based sustainability consulting agency Collective Responsibility (CR) noted that five years prior, the city began systematically shutting down several of the swapping points and large collection centers that underpin the informal recycling network. These measures were not merely responses to residents’ complaints. Rather, they were part of ongoing efforts to uphold Shanghai’s image of modernity.
上海市近几年所出台的新政策使非正规回收商的生计面临挑战。根据上海的非政府组织Collective Responsibility 2017年发表的报告，上海市政府5年前就开始系统性地关闭支撑非正规回收产业的几所大型收集中心。这不仅是市政府对于民众投诉的回应，也是市政府维护上海市现代化面貌的一种形象工程。
It is therefore surprising that Shanghai has introduced measures to include, rather than displace, informal recyclers from its new waste management framework. According to a village-level administrative officer in Shanghai’s Jinshan District, should informal recyclers seek to sell recyclables gathered from the newly-established waste collection points, they now have to register with the industry association overseeing these sites (Liangwang ronghe hezuoti 两网融合协作体). Informal recyclers must also provide data on the type and volume of recyclables collected, though there are no substantive official reporting procedures yet. Richard Brubaker, CR’s founder, has not heard of the new requirements. However, he believes these policies are “entirely possible,” even as current “(levels of) compliance… would be anyone’s guess.”
Shanghai’s emerging approach towards informal recyclers reflects their value; their highly efficient transportation networks and sorting processes have yet to be replicated by the formal sector. CR’s report found that discarded cardboard, plastics and metals are turned into new goods within just five to 15 days of recyclers obtaining them. Given that the informal sector’s logistical network extends beyond Shanghai, recyclers help to mitigate two pressing issues that the city now faces: dwindling landfill capacity and a shortage of processing facilities to deal with the surge in general waste collected following the waste-sorting law.
Moreover, there are opportunities for informal recyclers to advance compliance with the new policy in cases where local authorities have limited resources to do so. In one township, local authorities claim they only managed to achieve “85% compliance” among the 700 households they oversee. Likewise, in affluent neighborhoods, estate custodians were seen cleaning up after residents who discarded trash outside of the designated collection periods. Barring the hassle of trash-sorting, some residents do not comply because the city’s guidelines are confusing to begin with — they list fishbones as “household food waste,” but pork bones fall under “dry waste.” Consequently, some informal recyclers now offer waste-sorting services which, according to one of Xuhui District’s street committee members, are in high demand. More notably, through paying residents for their recyclables, recyclers incentivize waste-sorting, evidenced by damas waiting for tricycles at the waste collection points, glass bottles in tow.
Thus, Shanghai’s experiment with “formalizing the informal” is worth monitoring. Should the pilot take off, its lessons hold potential for the country’s waste management system and beyond. In China, the central government aims to increase recycling rates from below 20% to 35% in 46 cities. It also seeks to eventually establish urban waste-sorting nationwide. By implication, the informal recyclers’ potential to contribute to China’s ambitious targets could remain sizable in the short-to-medium term
Admittedly, in the longer term, automated waste-sorting and processing capabilities — perhaps even on-site — may become commercially viable and brought to scale, gradually displacing informal recyclers. In addition, China may deploy more punitive measures, like a social credit system, to advance policy compliance. However, Shanghai has already drawn criticism for its “eco-dictatorship” approach, encompassing fines, surveillance cameras that facilitate public shaming and public waste collectors’ rejection of unsorted garbage. Collectively, these initiatives render it difficult to predict the policy’s scalability beyond China. They might also erode the relevance of the informal sector’s contributions toward incentivizing and conducting trash-sorting.
Yet critics should not be too quick to dismiss Shanghai’s experiment. This nascent attempt to integrate informal recyclers holds export potential considering the profiles of many rapidly urbanizing Asian countries. These countries lack the means to emulate the highly-professionalized and capital-intensive waste management services of Taiwan, South Korea and northern Europe. Furthermore, without the resources to conduct the extensive recycling campaigns undertaken by Shanghai’s government, the region might likewise struggle to impose trash-sorting laws on its citizens. However, several Asian countries have at their disposal large informal economies with established logistical networks and business processes. For example, India’s informal sector employs approximately 80% of the country’s population. These countries may want to develop policies to professionalize and capture value from their informal waste management sectors. If they succeed, perhaps Asian cities of the future will witness singing garbage trucks and automated waste-sorting lines, running alongside the quiet efficiency of tricycles.