What Trash Are You? Let’s Talk Recycling

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When I was studying in Shanghai this fall, there was one question on everyone’s lips: “What trash are you?”

No, it’s not a rise in unfriendly bouts on the streets. Rather, beginning in July of last year, the city of 26 million has rolled out a mandatory recycling program. All waste must now be sorted into bins labeled: Dry, Wet, Recyclable, and Hazardous. While this may seem fairly straightforward, it seems the devil, or at least his trash, is in the details, and Chinese netizens have been buzzing about the stringent regulations which turn garbage disposal into a daily chore.

For example, chicken bones are Wet trash, but pork bones go into the Dry bin. Lighters are Dry trash, but light bulbs are Hazardous. And bubble tea, a national favorite, must be dismantled and separated into four parts. To top it off, garbage disposal is restricted to specific time windows in the morning and evening.

Yet, despite this laundry list of inconveniences, the program boasts strong early results. The city reports that just three months after launch, daily volume of collected Hazardous and Recyclable waste quintupled, Wet trash collection rose 130%, and residential compliance rates hit 80%.

How has the city achieved in a matter of months what 50 years of Earth Days in the United States could not? The key for China is its regime. Most Chinese officials are not directly elected, so there is no direct accountability to the people. Sometimes that unaccountability manifests itself in buying military jeeps and a medium-sized tourist bus. But sometimes it’s used to fast-track a green revolution.

Shanghai authorities have stationed 30,000 volunteers around communal trash cans, while another 18,000 officers were dispatched to enforce the rules. And in some communities, technology is the enforcer. Surveillance cameras, scanners, “smart recycling bins”, and QR-enabled trash bags link residents to their trash, allowing authorities to identify uncooperative residents. Violations may cost individuals 200 yuan ($30) in fines, while businesses are liable for up to half a million yuan ($70,000). By some reports, repeat offenders may even take a hit to their social credit scores.

All this enforced behavior sounds rather Orwellian, but it has been effective. China is the world’s biggest polluter, and global emission goals cannot be achieved without their support. In a country where 400 million still cannot speak the national language, centralized action may be needed to avert crisis. Shanghai hopes that its strong-armed approach will quickly build self-sustaining habits, after which the regulations can be relaxed. And if the program is a success, then it could become an example for the hundreds of other “Shanghais” sprouting across the developing world.

Elton Zhu, Investment Intern

Your town might not be recycling its recyclables. In 2018, China unveiled “Operation National Sword”, which banned most recycled imports into the country. Since then, townships have been struggling to find a place to send their paper and plastics, and some have resorted to incineration.

Business…finds a way. Xiaohuanggou (“Little Yellow Dog”) is a green tech startup capitalizing on the opportunities opened by regulation. They produce “AI-powered waste sorting bins” that automatically identify deposited waste, link it to users’ digital profiles using QR codes, and provides real-time digital cash back for select recyclables. The firm raised a $164 million Series A round in 2018.

Plastic China debuted in 2016. In 2017 it rode the film festival circuit and was even briefly featured in China before the government took it offline. In 2018 China stopped accepting the world’s recycling.

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