New Energy and Environment Digest 新能源与环保参考

TALKING TRASH: Shanghai

chinatrashrecycle

TALKING TRASH: Shanghai explores one city’s measure of success in improving waste treatment by implementing changes at all levels of waste management.

Insufficient sanitation and waste management is one of the dirty little large secrets of China’s impressive and, until a few months ago, sustained economic growth in recent years, an unprecedented epoch that has lifted millions out of poverty. While the amount of China’s population living below the poverty line shrank from 53 percent in 1981 to only eight percent by 2001, World Bank (WB) Millennium Development Goals data indicated in 2007 that some 35 percent of China’s population still lack access to adequate sanitation (for the WB definition of adequate sanitation, click here).

Despite coordinated efforts by organizations like the World Bank and UNICEF to improve China’s sometimes less-than-funny potty mouth, management of solid waste, like China’s actual trash heaps, remain insurmountable.

Through international partnerships and local leadership initiative, as well as letting the private sector handle most waste treatment activities, Shanghai has significantly incorporated modern technology into its landfill sites and incineration facilities, thus serving as a “model city” for other Chinese municipalities, at least where sanitation issues are concerned.

One noteworthy accomplishment has been the establishment in Shanghai of China’s largest waste-to-energy facility, capable of handling 3,000 tons of garbage daily and generating up to 270 million kilowatt hours of power annually, or enough juice to light up over 50,000 homes in Shanghai.

Since the first plant came online in 2003, another one with comparable capacity has been constructed and begun operation. Located in Puxi, the historic and cosmopolitan area of Shanghai that lies west of the Huangpu river, it is a a Sino-French joint venture between Shanghai Huangcheng Waste-to-Energy Co. Ltd and the “energy environmental services” giant, Veolia.

Starting from the Bottom of the Trash Heap

While urban planning efforts often center around large-scale projects, such as waste-to-energy facilities, which appear to offer a magical panacea, Shanghai has likewise proven capable of taking small, but not inconsequential steps to deliver effective waste management solutions. Two recent news items in particular highlight the importance of starting from the bottom of the trash heap.

As of late 2008, residents in Shanghai’s Jing’an District have an incentive to toss responsibly. As per a new municipal environmental authority-implemented program, residents receive small gifts, like cloth shopping bags, for pre-sorting their garbage. Residents are provided four bins for the following types of trash: glass, organic waste, other recyclables, and other waste.

What is unique about the program is the use of a positive incentive – small gifts – for behavior encouraged by the city, instead of the use of negative incentives – like fines – for leaving garbage unsorted, as is the norm in other cities around the globe. While this method may be the most feasible option for a culture unaccustomed to sorting, and unaware of its importance, it could eventually prove detrimental to Shanghai’s waste efforts.

Without a stricter fee schedule for trash collection, and stiff fines for those who do not sort correctly, private waste management companies become increasingly constrained in their operations, and may trade compliance with environmental laws in order to remain afloat in the industry. Nevertheless, given difficulties in enforcing regulations in China, the initiative appears to be an appropriate first step, and one that likewise addresses other problems associated with unsorted garbage.

Pre-sorted garbage makes everyone’s lives easier. Not only do municipal waste collectors find it easier  to manage, but pre-sorted trash also helps contain the informal recycling industry that has cropped up in recent years. Within this industry, individuals reliant on income generated from the resale of scrap are often exposed to serious health and safety threats. This comes both in the form of bacteria from organic waste that contributes to the spread of Tuberculosis and other diseases, as well as toxic substances found in tossed electronic goods, which get released when disassembled improperly.

The city hopes to scale up tenfold, eventually reaching 1,000 communities citywide, or 70 percent of Shanghai’s population. However, it is unclear what timeline is attached to the plan. Municipal authorities have neither issued any plan on how to address the joblessness of Shanghai’s trash scavengers, once sorting habits reign in their earning opportunities.

I say: why not take the Van Jones approach and find green jobs for these soon-to-be unemployed trash collectors? In fact, why not have them become street sweepers?

In the final garbage-related item of the day, Shanghai recently held a demonstration of zero-emissions push-cart street sweepers. Fueled entirely by their operators, the machines are capable of picking up common street rubbish such as tissues, cigarette butts, plastic bags, and plant refuse. Though not cheap – the prototype costs 10,000 MB (US$1,500) – the new sweeper does what current street models cannot: keep people employed while keeping China, and the earth, cleaner.

If you like what you see here, check out TALKING TRASH: Beijing.

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