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How to make waste sorting a success


The revised regulations on household waste classification and management took effect in Beijing on May 1. Since the blueprint for sorting waste was issued in 2017, China has made steady progress in this field. And at the end of last month, the National People's Congress Standing Committee revised the law on the prevention and control of environmental pollution by solid waste, which will come into force on Sept 1.

According to National Bureau of Statistics data, China disposed of 228 million tons of household garbage in 2018-up 6 percent year-on-year-of which about 99 percent was dispensed with harmlessly. There are 1,091 safe disposal plants in China, and they can dispose of about 766,000 tons of waste per day. Yet the existing landfills and incinerations are close to saturation point, and due to limited availability of land and secondary pollution, new plants have become increasingly difficult to build.

For most Chinese cities, disposal of the growing volume of trash has become a big problem. However, garbage classification, by reducing waste at source, can significantly ease the pressure of refuse disposal while helping recycle some urban wastes. This is a key step toward improving the industrial chain of solid waste management and promoting eco-civilization.

Forty-six cities in China have made progress in waste sorting. In Shanghai, for example, residential areas have a 90 percent compliance rate of garbage classification, and offices 87 percent, according to the city's urban construction and environmental protection committee. Most households are already sorting waste. In the first quarter of this year, the amounts of recyclables and kitchen waste increased by 86.8 and 55.7 percent respectively year-on-year.

But despite these successes, problems persist. For instance, in the absence of strict supervision, waste sorting has come to depend more on communities. Enterprises specializing in waste classification face a shortage of funds and government support, while the lack of initiative for some households to sort waste and inadequate transport and waste disposal facilities undermine efforts of sorting waste at source.

Besides, mandatory waste sorting has created a new challenge: people want to ensure the waste they painstakingly sort is disposed of or recycled separately instead of being mixed together in the end.

At present, most wastes in China end up in landfills or incinerators. Although most of the paper and metal are recycled, kitchen waste is not properly disposed of or utilized. Except for some developed areas such as Beijing, and Jiangsu and Guangdong provinces, many places have been slow in transforming kitchen waste into fertilizer or feed. Since the existing kitchen waste processing facilities are overstretched, there is a need to accelerate the transformation of such waste into fertilizer or energy.

The lack of facilities to properly dispose of the growing volume of sorted waste is one of the main reasons why mandatory garbage classification is not being extended to more cities. Also, some people due to their poor understanding of the significance of waste sorting to the environment, are reluctant to spend time and energy on sorting waste.

True, the revised regulations are aimed at promoting garbage sorting in households and offices, but the different requirements of different sectors could undermine the effectiveness of the regulations. And, given the different levels of economic development and population density of different regions, it is difficult to apply the same waste sorting standards across the country.

As such, the authorities should use more comprehensive and effective ways to improve trash sorting. While the government should play the leading role in waste management, the market should play a decisive role in resource allocation. In this regard, the government would do good to further improve the laws and regulations on waste sorting and management, and build enough facilities for waste disposal.

According to a Beijing Municipal Commission of Urban Management document, issued in April, the city has more than 113,000 waste sorting facilities, 1,259 vehicles for transporting kitchen waste, and 6,412 vehicles for transporting other types of waste-and was disposing of 32,700 tons of household waste a day-which means it was ready to implement the revised waste sorting regulations from May.

Still, public awareness should be further raised, especially in less-developed areas, to make people understand that by sorting waste at source, we will better protect the environment. Grassroots communities have played a key role in containing the spread of the novel coronavirus, and they can use this experience to make the waste sorting regulations a success. Moreover, health campaigns promoting urban-and-rural environmental governance should be launched to promote healthy and eco-friendly lifestyles in China, by making people realize how closely environmental protection-and thus waste sorting-is related to their health.

Each stage of waste sorting is marked by challenges, and only cooperation among governments, enterprises and the public can turn these challenges into opportunities. Despite making some progress, the waste sorting plan requires patience and continued efforts of all sections of society to become a success.

The author is a professor at the School of Environment, Tsinghua University. The views don't necessarily represent those of China Daily.

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