China’s mighty migrating mandate

Country has to get serious about its trash problem as its fast-paced economy expands

What happens in China, doesn’t always stay in China. In fact, when it comes to tough new garbage and recycling restrictions, they may migrate elsewhere sooner than you might think.

For example, Shanghai is one of the world’s largest cities with 26.9 million people. It is suffocating under mountains of trash its residents generate daily. It lacks an effective recycling and disposal system.

“Instead, it has trash pickers to sift through the waste, plucking out whatever can be reused,” The Economist magazine reported earlier this month. “As people get wealthier, fewer of them want to do such dirty work. The waste, meanwhile just keeps piling up.”

China is now a “throw away” culture. Garbage cans fill faster as more people have more money to purchase “stuff.” Too much trash has to be either burnt or buried.

Shanghai is generating 9 million metric tons of garbage each year. Something had to be done. Authorities issued marked bins for categories of recyclables, but in practice they become additional garbage cans. People simply weren’t taking time to sort their trash.

The growing garbage problem drew China President Xi Jinping’s attention. He traveled to Shanghai last year to “emphasize” the need for change. On one hand, Xi’s velvet glove was celebrity packed “peppy ad campaigns” calling citizens’ attention to recycling. On the other hand is the iron-fist full of unforgiving edicts. Government leaders formed a 3,600 quasi-police force to crack down on violators. They have the power to issue stiff fines and unusually tough penalties.

To drive the point home, the first violation was issued to the Swissotel, a swanky five-star hotel used by wealthy foreigners. Hotel owners were cited for improperly sorting trash, received a 200 yuan fine, and a heap of embarrassment.

The Economist reports: “For repeat violators, the city can add black marks to credit records, making it harder for them to obtain bank loans or even buy train tickets.”

Under the city’s recycling laws, refuse must be divided and put into the proper recycling bins. Food wastes are the most difficult problem and people are required to tear open their plastic bags for inspection before they empty their contents into the community vats.

While the Shanghai system is messy and can be smelly, it is a way to capture people’s attention and change habits.

The garbage problem is getting worse worldwide. Every year we collectively dump a massive 2.12 billion tons of waste. If all this waste was put on trucks they would go around the world 24 times. By 2035 the World Bank estimates trash volumes will increase by 70 percent to 3.4 billion tons.

China has to get serious about its trash problem as its fast-paced economy expands. It surpassed the US as the world’s largest waste generator in 2004. By 2030 the country will likely produce twice as much municipal solid waste as the United States.

If Shanghai’s rules were to migrate to Washington state, they would create turmoil and outrage. Can you imagine taking your leftovers to a neighborhood recycling drum and having it inspected before dumping?

Currently, residents in many U.S. cities are issued three-cans – garbage, recyclables and yard waste. In Vancouver, garbage is collected weekly and yard waste and recyclables in alternating weeks. While it is convenient for residents, it is a big problem for recyclers.

In Shanghai, the onus shifted to those creating the refuse. That shift in responsibility could be coming to our country as well.

The trash problem is a global environmental ticking time bomb. Hopefully, “good old American ingenuity” will lead us to better ways before government is forced to act.

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.


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