A Chinese worker sorts through plastic bottles for recycling. Photo: iStock
A Chinese worker sorts through plastic bottles for recycling. Photo: iStock

Trash talk is nothing new in China. At times, it resembles a national pastime, as the stench of rotting garbage drifts through the air near thousands of waste collection centers in major towns and cities.

Discussions about “junk mountains” and “refuse” polluting waterways fill the airwaves of social media sites and even on the tightly controlled state media portals.

In short, cleaning up the environment has become a foul topic for China’s rising middle class and resurgent rural communities, as well as President Xi Jinping’s administration.

“Due to rapid economic growth and population increase, problems of environmental pollution, climate change and resource depletion have become increasingly serious in China,” a report by academics Shijiang Xiao, Huijuan Dong, Yong Geng and Matthew Brander for the University of Edinburgh’s Business School in Scotland highlighted.

“Waste recycling (RWR) is becoming one of the key approaches to simultaneously respond to the above issues, and the Chinese government has begun to regulate and promote source separation and urban waste recycling in recent years,” they added. “However, several barriers still exist [such as an] integrated RWR system in order to identify these barriers.”

Beijing has certainly made progress. Earlier this year, the government announced plans to stop taking in a range of imported trash, such as plastics, to be reprocessed. For decades, China had been the largest importer of waste.

The decision was made in an effort to get to grips with an array of home-grown garbage issues.

To illustrate the depth of the problem, Greenpeace reported that the country had become the dumping ground for more than half of the world’s used plastic before imposing the ban.

At the peak of this ‘dirty’ import trade, up to nine million metric tons of plastic scrap was being processed.

YouTube video

“Last year [2016], Chinese manufacturers imported 7.3 million metric tonnes of waste plastics from developed countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union and Japan,” Christine Cole, a research fellow at Nottingham Trent University in England, wrote for The Conversation, an independent media outlet sourced from the academic and research community.

“This campaign against yang laji or ‘foreign garbage’ applies to plastic, textiles and mixed paper and will result in China taking a lot less material as it replaces imported materials with recycled material collected in its own domestic market, from its growing middle-class and Western-influenced consumers,” she added.

On the domestic front, major cities such as Shanghai are starting to wheel out dedicated teams to sort through refuse before dividing it up into categories.

Sanitation workers in test areas had come under fire after dumping rubbish, which had previously been separated by consumers, into giant landfills by ignoring recycling protocols.

Residents had complained about the practice, forcing Shanghai’s municipal government to launch a new task force this year.

“China’s central government has been pushing cities to establish official waste-sorting systems for over a decade, but city governments have struggled to formalize an industry that has long been dominated by market-driven informal work,” Caixin, the media group based in Beijing, reported.

“After the central government announced in 2017 that 46 cities were required to reach a recycling rate of 35% by 2020, southern tech hub Shenzhen became the country’s first city to impose fines on businesses and individuals for incorrect waste-sorting.”

Still, it appears that sorting out the trash conundrum is not only a filthy job, but also a stinking bureaucratic nightmare.