Without a recycling system, China faces a mountain of rubbish

There is no real recycling system in China but the government is trying to change that, Anna Fifield writes

Tuesday 12 February 2019 17:22 GMT
Chen Liwen makes her rounds to help people recycle in Xicai village in Hebei province near Beijing
Chen Liwen makes her rounds to help people recycle in Xicai village in Hebei province near Beijing (Washington Post)

Chen Liwen is nothing but encouraging as she pulls out the plastic bags thrown into the food scraps bucket with the corn husks and egg shells.

“You did great,” she says to the store owner, explaining that the plastic should go into the yellow container, not the green one. “Next time you can do even better.”

After all, it is only the second day of supervised rubbish-sorting in Xicai village, a dusty collection of about 480 houses with no indoor plumbing in Hebei province, outside Beijing.

The village’s residents include Chen’s parents. The zero-waste advocate has decided to start her campaign to teach China to recycle here, in her hometown.

“You need to organise people to start a waste reduction system, and it’s hard in the city because there are too many people,” says Chen, who leads the environmental group China Zero Waste Alliance and is trying to teach the nation to recycle, one village at a time.

“In the villages people know each other, so it’s not so hard to organise people. Also, they have land, so composting can be done very easily,” she says.

Up until the 1980s there was relatively little rubbish in China. The country was poor, so people didn’t buy much and they certainly didn’t waste much.

Then came the economic boom – and with it came litter. Mountains of consumerist rubbish. Computer parts, plastic packaging, milk cartons, broken mobile phones, polystyrene, cardboard boxes.

Now, with the prevalence of food delivery services and online shopping, a customer can get a cup of bubble tea or a single soft-serve ice cream delivered in China for a nominal fee – so there are new kinds of rubbish.

Although the average Chinese person produces about half the solid waste of the average American, there are many more people in China. That means the nation throws out about 60 million takeaway food containers every day.

But there is no real recycling system. Instead, there’s an informal network of “rubbish pickers” – usually migrants from rural areas who come to the city to scour through urban garbage – who extract anything of value from refuse bins and take it to huge sorting centers outside the city.

It’s not unusual to see motorised tricycles chugging along with a truck-sized load of polystyrene containers or carefully flattened boxes piled on the back.

This means recycling only happens when it’s profitable. Plastic bottles are not worth recycling when oil prices are low – old bottles lose their cost advantage over virgin plastic when oil prices fall – and the price of paper fluctuates.

Buried under waste, the Chinese government is trying to change this.

For starters, it has started banning imports of solid waste, a practice that began in the 1980s as Chinese manufacturers looked for cheap raw materials. By the time the ban took effect last year, China was importing about eight million tons of plastic waste each year.

The government banned household waste plastics, unsorted waste paper and waste textiles at the beginning of last year, and this month added scrap metal, ship parts and auto parts to the list. The government plans to phase out imports of all waste by the end of this year, except for material China cannot substitute.

But this won’t have much impact unless China also improves the way it deals with domestically produced waste.

“There’s no proper recycling system in China. It’s a very urgent problem,” says Eric Lau, a campaigner at Greenpeace in Beijing.

“The government has all these policies and slogans, but if you go around the city you see all the waste is still mixed. There has been no change,” Lau says. “We need a system, and a system that runs smoothly.”

The Chinese government is very good at writing rules, analysts say, but less so at enforcing them.

Even when residential complexes have separate containers for waste, residents seldom sort their rubbish, knowing scavengers will take care of that.

But in Beijing, which churns out more than 22,000 tons of rubbish every day, the big recycling centres have been shut down or moved further out of the city as the government has tried to control the capital’s population and land usage. Restrictions have also been introduced on incineration to try to tackle the air pollution problems.

The central government announced in 2017 it would make rubbish separation compulsory for city dwellers by the end of 2020 – and those who didn’t sort their waste would be charged fees for sorting. The aim is for one-third of the waste produced by large cities to be recycled by the end of next year.

A local man drives a specially converted rubbish collection tricycle through Xicai village telling locals to bring out their recycling
A local man drives a specially converted rubbish collection tricycle through Xicai village telling locals to bring out their recycling (Washington Post photo by Anna Fifield)

But changing entrenched behaviour will take a long time to change, says Frank Chen, director of recycling at the China Plastics Processing Industry Association. “Maybe it will take until the next century.”

The industry at the heart of the problem isn’t convinced China can learn to recycle.

“We’ve told the people many times to recycle and teach them the importance of recycling, but no one listens to us. No one cares,” he says. “Chinese people understand only one thing: money.”

But Chen Liwen, who became an environmentalist in college and started her NGO in 2009, is going to try. She is taking matters into her own hands, starting in villages around where she grew up.

Chen’s father, Chen Lianxiang, is proud of the impact his daughter has had on the village, even if he laments the fact she deals with rubbish all day long. “There was garbage everywhere in the past,” he says.

Chen and her team had allocated two buckets to each household in the village; a yellow one for trash and a green one for organic waste. The latter is composted in a field on the outskirts of the village. Bottles, glass and plastics were already being recycled for money.

Every day at 2pm a local man drives a specially converted rubbish collection tricycle through the town, with Chen on her bullhorn telling the locals to bring out their containers. Then she and her fellow volunteers talk them through the recycling process, offering gentle guidance to those who are still mixing their rubbish.

Chen stayed for two months in the first village to help teach people how to separate their litter and then to make sure they actually did it. But she can’t be everywhere, so she has enlisted locals who now find themselves with time on their hands: heads of the local women’s associations, a part of the Communist Party apparatus.

“They used to be in charge of birth control, but now they don’t have to do this anymore,” says Chen, referring to the government’s decision to drop its decades-old one child policy.

Chen’s efforts are something of a novelty in her home village, where many of the elderly residents idle away their days playing Go, a kind of Chinese chess, on pavements or sitting on stairs solving the problems of the world.

There is the problem of scale. Xicai has 1,600 residents. That’s one-millionth – or 0.000001 per cent – of China’s population.

But most villagers are keen to give it a try. Although others do not put recycling high on their priority list. “We understand the garbage sorting,” says Duan Hongquan, shrugging as he comes out of his gate to see Chen, “but in these villages we don’t even have sewerage systems. Why should we care about trash?”

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