Formalizing the informal: What Asia’s emerging cities can learn from Shanghai’s new trash-sorting law 迈向正规化:上海市垃圾分类法赋予亚洲新兴城市的经验教训

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。

Shanghai’s designated waste collection points are equipped with four different-colored bins — brown for household food waste (also known as wet waste), red for hazardous waste, black for residual waste (also known as dry waste) and blue for recyclable waste.上海市每所垃圾投放点有装置四只不同颜色的垃圾桶。蓝色、黑色、棕色与红色的垃圾桶分别收集可回收物、残余生活垃圾(简称“干垃圾”)、剩菜(简称“湿垃圾”)以及有害垃圾。
Photo credit: Phyllis Brown

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. 

迄今为止,新法规激发了几项创新。譬如,本地互联网公司先后发布了人工智能小程序来协助居民分类垃圾。与此同时,上海市正逐步实施“绿色账户积分”激励制度,分类达标的居民可凭借累积分数兑换基本的家居用品。因此,虽然强制性垃圾分类仅实行了120天,上海市可回收物的每日平均回收量已达到4500吨,相比2018年增加了整整5倍。

Smart bins with scan-to-open features (pictured) were introduced to several locations in Shanghai during the law’s pilot phase in 2018. In September this year, the city awarded automated smart bins to Huidong, a housing estate within Xuhui District, in light of their exemplary waste-sorting practices that predated the new law. 
2018年的政策试点期间,上海市的部分小区引进了具有扫描开箱功能的智能垃圾箱(如图)。今年9月,上海市政府将智能垃圾箱赠给徐汇区内的汇东小区,作为小区居民遵行示范分类的一种奖励。
Photo credit: Phyllis Brown

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.

然而,在实行垃圾分类法的几十年前,上海的资源回收产业(resource recovery)就已经在数十万流动人口的劳动下供需两旺。上海的非正规回收商主要由来自安徽省与江苏省的流动人口组成,他们以获取、分类和转卖可回收物谋生。他们骑着堆满纸皮的三轮车,赶往城市各地收集点的画面,对上海市民来说司空见惯。事实上,与许多亚洲国家一样,中国拥有庞大的非正规经济,这一体系提供一半以上的城市就业机会。然而,在居民负责垃圾收捡、正规企业负责运输的当下,非正规回收者将何去何处?

An informal recycler transporting recyclables to an unofficial waste-sorting center in Shanghai. 一名垃圾回收者将可回收物载到上海市某一非正规垃圾收集分类所。
Photo credit: Huffington Post

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.”

在此意义上,上海市政府试图将非正规回收商纳入新废物管理框架内,而非将其排除在框架外的政策令人出乎意料。上海市金山区的一位村级管理人员解释道,如果非正规回收商试图转卖投放站所收集的可回收垃圾,就得先在一个名为“两网融合协作体”的行业协会注册。此外,非正规回收商也有向两网汇报提供回收量与可回收物类型的相关数据等义务。然而市政府尚未公布实质性的官方汇报程序。CR的创始人Richard Brubaker受访时表示,他未听说过上述要求,但他相信市政府主动设立类似规范是“完全可能”的,即便目前的政策遵守程度是人们能“想象得到的”。

 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.

上海市涉及到非正规回收商的新对策表明了政府对回收商在有效维持废物管理运作中的积极作用的新认识。换言之,市政府似乎意识到回收商是废物管理系统内的重要一环,正规企业难以复制非正规回收商们高效的运输网络和分类流程。譬如,CR的调查显示,从回收商获得可回收垃圾(如纸皮、塑料瓶、金属等)到废品被加工成新商品,仅需5到15天的时间。其次,由于非正规回收产业的物流网络延伸至上海以外,回收商的运作有助于缓解上海市当前面临的两项挑战,分别为填埋容量的急速萎缩,以及现有垃圾处理设施不足以应对新法施行后猛增的垃圾回收量。

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. 

更重要的是,非正规回收商能在基层政府资源有限的情况下督促居民遵守新政策。一名基层干部在受访时声称,村里700户家庭的总体“遵守率”为85%。哪怕在相对富裕的社区也会出现居民非定时定点地投放垃圾、保洁员需要在指定时段外清理垃圾的情况。居民们对垃圾分类法的忽视基于分类过程不可避免的不便,以及分类规则的复杂性带来的困惑。比如,鱼骨属于“湿垃圾”,猪骨却归为“干垃圾”。鉴于此,徐汇区的一位街道办事处委员观察到,部分的非正规回收商开始提供垃圾分类服务,且这些服务有很大的需求。除此之外,非正规回收商通过向居民购买可回收物来激励居民们分类与清洗垃圾。小区的老奶奶们捧着装满空瓶的塑料袋,一大清早在垃圾投放站耐心等待回收商前来收购,就是个典型的例子。

Frustrated netizens created memes about the confusing new guidelines. Clockwise starting at top left: If it can be sold to buy pigs, it’s recyclable waste; if a pig will not eat it, it’s dry waste; if a pig will die from eating it, it’s hazardous waste; if a pig can eat it, it’s wet waste. 
懊恼的网民基于垃圾分类规则的困惑制造了一系列的表情包
 Photo credit: Sohu
Estate custodians washing discarded recyclables at a waste collection point
保洁员在垃圾投放站前分类并清洗清洗居民所废弃的可回收物。
Photo credit: Phyllis Brown

 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

所以说,上海“将非正规行业正规化”的政策模式值得关注。假如试点成功,其经验教训将为国内其他地区以及亚洲许多发展中国家的废物管理系统带来政策启发。中央政府已计划将46个城市的回收率从目前的不足20%提高到35%。中国的长远计划甚至包括在全国所有城市建立垃圾分类制度。言下之意,在可预测的中短期内,非正规回收商极有可能促进中国实现其环境目标。

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. 

然而,中国及国外的决策者必须考虑到废物分类及处理的自动化装置以及现场加工设备在长远的未来可能具有的商业性和规模化的前景。此外,中国可采取更多其他惩罚性措施(如社会信用体系)来提升政策的遵守度。事实上,上海垃圾法的惩罚机制已经遭到有关“生态独裁”的批评,聚焦在罚款、监控摄像的使用以及拒绝运输分类不达标的垃圾等方面。总体而言,这些因素都将使得上海废物管理模式的未来不可预期。此外,新措施也可能削弱非正规回收商作为推广垃圾分类重要贡献者的地位。

A poster informing residents that waste collection companies will no longer accept unsorted garbage, which will be left to accumulate in residential estates. Only sorted waste will be transported to the city’s landfills and waste management facilities.
告知居民关于新的“不分不运”原则的宣传海报。垃圾分类法出炉后,垃圾收集企业拒绝运送分类不达标的垃圾到城市的各个垃圾管理处。 Photo credit: Phyllis Brown
Surveillance images of compliant and defiant residents put on display at a neighborhood waste collection point.
在各个小区装置的垃圾投放站分别展示达标与不守规则的居民的监控图像。
Photo credit: Phyllis Brown

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.

尽管如此,万万不能预先摒弃上海市可能赋予许多亚洲国家的经验教训。一方面,这些快速城市化的发展中国家缺乏效仿台湾韩国北欧的高度专业化、资本密集的废物管理模式。另一方面,亚洲各相关的地方政府不具有上海市政府的庞大资源去开展大规模的政策宣传活动,而这恰恰是激励市民承担垃圾分类义务的必备条件。尽管如此,亚洲的许多国家具有颇大的非正规经济体及劳动力,有助于运输网络与业务流程的发展。在印度,非正规劳动力占全国人口的80%就是一个很好的例子。换言之,新兴城市如何将非正规废物管理系统正规化并寻求经济价值,有可能成为有待考证的核心政策议题之一。如果成功了,也许在亚洲的未来城市也会出现自动化垃圾分类设备与不显眼却极为高效的三轮车并驾齐驱的场景。

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