Features | Environment | East Asia

Can Beijing Control Its Trash?

The city is rolling out a new law on waste disposal, but enforcement could prove a major issue.

By Lily Hartzell for
Can Beijing Control Its Trash?

A man looking for recyclable materials from trash cans walks against strong winds blowing on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, April 17, 2011.

Credit: AP Photo

There is an unending selection of restaurants in Beijing that can deliver food to your door in just 30 minutes, but the time saved by speeding delivery e-bikes is made up for by the layers of packaging surrounding the food: a bag, plastic wrap, plastic containers, and special paper and plastic wrappings for the complementary utensils.

Beijing collected 9.3 million tonnes of waste last year, a weight equivalent to 30 Empire State Buildings. This number has only risen over the last several years, even as environmental problems have spiraled. In 2018, China pushed 200 million cubic meters of trash into its waters; landfill after landfill is filling up decades ahead of schedule. Last year’s ban on imported recyclable materials was in part a reaction to these pressures. Now Beijing’s municipal government is in the process of formulating a new law to reduce, and better sort, the mountains of trash the capital produces each day.

Beijing is not alone in this effort. Its Amendment to the Regulations on the Administration of Domestic Waste came on the heels of Shanghai’s trash law, which went into effect in July of this year. Both local laws are part of a national campaign to better deal with waste launched in 2017. Questions remain, however, about the city’s ability to enforce the suite of new fines and provisions it outlines for both its residents and business owners.

The new law, open for comment until November 13 and expected to be implemented in early 2020, is the first revision of Beijing’s trash law since it first went into effect in 2012.

Residents will now sort their waste into recycling, food waste, hazardous waste, and other garbage. If they fail to do so, they will be fined 200 RMB (roughly $30). According to a 2018 survey conducted by the Vanke Foundation and Dataway, fewer than 28 percent of the 3,600 big-city residents surveyed knew how to separate garbage from recyclables.

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For over a year, 84 neighborhoods in the city have been designated as waste sorting pilot zones for this classification system, which will now be rolled out for the whole population. The trash sorting managers in Qingshuiyuan Community, a pilot area in Dongcheng District, are on hand from 7 to 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 to 7 p.m. to make sure waste is being properly disposed of.

“Everyone understands, they are all very good,” one manager told The Diplomat. “When the sorting first started everyone thought it was really inconvenient since you had to separate it into several bags. But now everyone is used to it, and they all put it in separate bags very well.”

Public reception of the Beijing law appears to be more positive than it was for Shanghai’s this summer. The hashtag “#DividingRubbishSoonSendsShanghaiCitizensCrazy” (#快被垃圾分类逼疯的上海居民) was used tens of thousands of times on the microblogging platform Sina Weibo until it was banned, the BBC reported. In contrast, comments on the announcements of Beijing’s new trash regime were primarily focused on the positive environmental impacts waste sorting would have, and welcoming the improved standards.

On average, 50 percent of household waste is food waste, but the city is still figuring out what to do with it now that it will be separated from recyclables and garbage. Beijing has at least one compost facility, but according to Li Hua, Waste and Resources Campaign Specialist at Greenpeace, the city does not have enough yard waste to create compost on a large scale. Without adequate tree trimmings and dead leaves, the organic waste produces too much water and does not have the necessary carbon-nitrogen ratio.

Nevertheless, it is important to keep organic matter out of recycling and garbage intended for the incinerator, since it decreases the efficiency of these processes. At the moment, 40 percent of the city’s waste goes into landfills, which are criticized by environmentalists for polluting groundwater and shunned by residents for their stink. Beijing is rapidly building incinerators to reach its goal of having no buried waste by 2035.

Experts say that the new law needs to do more to focus on waste reduction, and not just on sorting existing waste, however.

“It is best to focus efforts on the area with the most impact. Now the most focus is on properly sorting. This is important, but if we keep generating new waste, then we’re just busy sorting,” Li said.

The law does have some significant measures to reduce waste at its source, but enforcement remains an issue.

The amendment requires government offices to go paperless, and sets a fine of between 1,000 and 5,000 RMB for restaurants and hotels that offer disposable utensils or single-use amenities. These businesses must also post signs discouraging customers from requesting disposable items. E-commerce companies such as JingDong and Taobao are required to use pricing mechanisms to encourage consumers to request environmentally-friendly packaging.

In 2017, China threw away 175,000 tons of disposable chopsticks and 44,000 tons of plastic spoons from food delivery alone. Now restaurants offering these items will be fined, and companies like Meituan, a popular food delivery app, and Marriott are adjusting accordingly.

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According to Jennie Toh, a vice president at Marriott International Asia Pacific, the hotel chain has removed toothbrushes, combs, shaving razors, nail files, bath brushes, and shoe brushes from their hotels in Shanghai and Guangzhou to comply with similar laws. Marriott plans to make a similar move in Beijing when the new regulation comes into effect.

Meituan will not be held directly responsible under the law since it is restaurants, and not the delivery companies, being mandated to reduce waste. But the company nevertheless implemented several measures to cut down on single-use plastics. Customers who indicate that they do not want utensils with their order receive points that they can use to contribute to the company’s Blue Mountain Fund, a foundation focused on environmental education that includes projects such as opening waste treatment plants to the public to raise awareness about consumption.

Restaurants are not required to remove chopsticks and spoons from the order, however, and the company has received complaints from customers who received them anyway.  The app has also rolled out a feature to help users determine how to sort the waste from the delivery they just consumed based on local regulations.

These changes are not enough on their own; Beijing will only successfully reduce waste if the city government can find a way to enforce the law.

“The biggest challenge in implementing the law is how to sustainably enforce it at a reasonable cost” Li said. He pointed out that in order to be effective, police would have to check restaurants far more frequently than is realistic.

The nation-wide plastic bag ban, passed in 2008, has resulted in bags being sold for only a few cents — not enough to discourage their use — and many stores flouting the ban altogether. The city government will need to find stronger ways to enforce this latest attempt at waste reduction.

The new regulations implement a suite of fines, but one proposal is to make residents pay to produce waste even if they do sort it correctly. According to a study conducted by the National Development and Strategy Research Center at Renmin University, the cost to collect, transport, and dispose of one ton of waste in 2015 was 2,253 RMB. Typically, Beijing residents pay less than 10 RMB in fees for waste disposal. Li argues that more of this cost needs to be passed to producers and consumers in order to discourage waste, and that the city government needs to set a hard waste reduction target.

For now, however, it seems that the new law will result in a cleaner Beijing, if not a waste-free one.

“The trash sorting is very good. Before we had this system in the summertime there would be a lot of bugs. Today you can see it’s all very good, very clean,” the trash sorting manager in Qingshuiyuan Community said.

Lily Hartzell is a freelance journalist based in Beijing, covering environment and social trends in China. She graduated from Tufts University with a degree in International Relations and Environmental Studies and wrote her senior honors thesis on China’s participation in international environmental agreements. She was previously a Princeton in Asia fellow at the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Beijing office.