When Chinese is spoken in an overly terse manner, it can sometimes lead to totally divergent interpretations.
Confronted by a garbage classification supervisor who asked him“What kind of garbage are you?,” a WeChat friend of mine in Xiamen, Fujian Province, pondered the question for a while and shared the conversation on WeChat Moments:“As I am such an enthusiastic foodie, I think I must be kitchen waste.”
The post was meant to be a joke.
As garbage sorting became a hot topic making headlines recently, similar punch lines started being circulated online. Tactfully and in various amusing ways, people have recorded their own and others’ mixed reactions to the nationwide campaign, which is bound to affect the lives of each and every one of us.
The idea of garbage sorting has been advocated in China for about 20 years. In 2000, China began to pilot garbage sorting in eight cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, by installing assorted waste bins on the streets. In March 2017, the country set a goal for the recycling rate of household garbage in cities to reach 35 percent by 2020. The State Council, China’s Cabinet, also required 46 cities, including Shenzhen, to carry out mandatory garbage sorting and draw up their own regulations.
The tricky issue came into the spotlight again when Shanghai’s first domestic garbage management regulations took effect a week ago. Under the regulations, individuals in the city can be fined up to 200 yuan (US$29) if they fail to sort garbage on three occasions within 30 days. The fines for offending business entities can be as high as 50,000 yuan.
While people in Shanghai were still baffled by the difference between wet trash and dry waste, Shenzhen announced last week that it would ramp up its efforts to encourage residents to throw away household garbage in designated places and at a fixed time. Fortunately for Shenzheners, dry waste is not one of the four categories of garbage classification in the city, so they will be spared the confusion afflicting their counterparts in Shanghai.
With support from the Central Government, we have every reason to believe that the garbage sorting initiative will sweep across the entire country. It’s never too late to make the right move.
For a long time, the daily routine of getting rid of household garbage has been simple and convenient in Chinese cities. All that is required is to put every kind of waste in a plastic bag, open the door and walk a few steps to drop the bag into a trash bin that is placed on every floor of residential buildings. Beyond that, cleaners and sanitation workers will surely take care of everything. It rarely occurs to us what harm the indiscriminate disposal of garbage might do. Once the garbage is out of sight, it is out of mind.
With rapid industrialization and urbanization, cities in China are getting bigger and urban populations are growing rapidly. Massive amounts of municipal solid garbage are generated in urban areas every day. Most of the trash eventually ends up being burned or buried and the garbage never stops coming.
Take Shenzhen as an example. The daily amount of domestic garbage generated in the city has reached more than 20,000 tons, official statistics show. However, the overall capacity of the five garbage incineration power plants and three landfill sites currently in operation is only 14,025 tons per day. In other words, we are producing more garbage than we can handle!
This presents an alarming, even horrifying, picture: The garbage is overflowing and we may some day be besieged by untreated rubbish if nothing is done about it promptly and effectively.
Should we resort to more incinerators or landfills to tackle the pressing problem? The answer is an emphatic no!
Landfills used to be a common method of garbage disposal, but have gradually fallen out of favor due to environmental concerns. They have been blamed for contaminating the soil and groundwater, polluting rivers and lakes and emitting stink.
Regarding incinerators, even if they were built and operated up to international standards, toxic-gas free emissions cannot be guaranteed. A10-year observation conducted in Japan shows that the number of people who developed cancer within 1,200 meters of an incinerator plant was twice the number of people who were diagnosed with cancer outside that radius.
So, if we really want to avoid being victimized by the ever-increasing pile of garbage we produce, we don’t seem to have much choice but to reduce the volume of trash. Garbage sorting and recycling, of course, is an important step in achieving the goal of waste reduction.
According to official figures, more than40 percent of household garbage in China is made in the kitchen. With effective sorting, food waste can be turned into organic fertilizer for growing flowers, or used to produce biofuels, chemicals and animal feed.
Savvy businessmen have taken notice of this burgeoning recycling sector, which is estimated to be worth billions of dollars. Some have already begun tapping it. The country’s capital market has also reacted positively, with the shares of recycling companies closing at higher levels following the announcement of the Shanghai regulations.
We all have a stake in this sorting initiative. Concerted efforts are needed to ensure it is a success and turn our trash into treasure.
Making a lifestyle change is challenging, but we have to go the extra mile to save resources and protect the environment. Like it or not, this is a battle we can’t afford to lose.
(The author is vice head of the Shenzhen Daily News Desk.)