By: Ziqi Yuan

Standing in front of four garbage cans, I looked at the cup of milk tea in my hand and thought for a while. The paper straw—dry waste. The residue inside—wet waste. “Is the cup of milk tea recyclable?” I took out my phone and entered the question, wondering whether the cup was made of recyclable plastic. Three minutes later, I still could not find an authoritative answer.

In fact, many people in China may have encounter the same problem ever since the implementation of a number of waste management policies. Citizens are supposed to separate waste into different categories before garbage collection. Started in 2019 in Shanghai, waste sorting policies continued to expand to other cities. The policies aim at increasing the recycling rate of waste, which can also further help reduce greenhouse gas emission, but would they be successful? What should the government consider before implementing such environmental policies?

Practical Issues
Citizens in Shanghai have complained about the inconvenience and frustration about the current policies:
• Garbage dumping areas in many communities are only open in specific time windows during the day, but the schedule may not fit the lifestyle of the many office workers in the city. They are unlikely to change their working and resting schedule in order to throw their trash in the determined time period.
• The city has seen a reduced number of trash bins on the streets due to the policies. This would cause exhaustion among people and they may simply throw their trash randomly.
• Most people do not have previous experience in waste sorting. However, the relative resources provided so far are not clear and detailed enough, resulting in confusion and unwillingness.

For the citizens in China, life quality and economic benefits are crucial, and policies need to address them to gain support. While most people understand the benefits of waste sorting, it is unlikely for them to take actions if it requires them to sacrifice a lot of their life quality. These cultural and social environment considerations pave the way for suitable and effective environmental policies.

A noticeboard about rubbish sorting in Shanghai. (Wang Qiliang, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons, no changes made)

International Differences
Can one country simply copy the successful environmental policies from other countries? The answer is clearly NO. For instance, Japan has been implementing waste sorting for a long time. The citizens are familiar with how to separate the waste correctly, and its policies are accompanied with very detailed instructions. Compared with Japan, China has much less experience, and a step-by-step implementation is more realistic. In the United States, many families live in single family detached homes. This makes it easier to place the trash bags in the yard or by the side of the road, waiting for the collection. However, many families in China live in apartments. People have less space to do waste separation and keep the trash before collection.

Waste bins at a highway rest area in Japan. (G Witteveen, CC BY-NC 2.0 <>, via flickr, no changes made)

National Differences
Even within the same country, the policies should consider local differences. For example, the waste sorting behaviors of population in rural and urban areas are sensitive to different main factors. According to Lou et al., while urban residents are more concerned about time and storage space for recyclables, rural residents are more sensitive to monetary mechanisms. They care more about “free separation garbage bins and bags” as well as the fine policy (12). Easy access to facilities enables urban residents to do waste separation in their fast-paced work life while economic incentives encourage rural residents to take action.

Government Influence vs. Personal Awareness
Ahmad et al. note that “most citizens believe that HSW [Household Solid Waste] management is solely the duty of the government” (334). Lou et al. also finds out that Chinese Communist Party members influence waste sorting behaviors significantly. They help promote the messages and implement the policies of the government. This connection shows the power of government to influence the behaviors of citizens. However, it is also important to increase the motivation of the citizens relative to morality and environmental awareness. In both studies, the authors suggest the need to implement awareness campaigns to establish moral norms and common responsibility, encouraging residents to participate in efforts beneficial to the environment. While increasing awareness of the citizens in the whole country may take a long time, such development would bring continuous positive effects in terms of environmental protection.

It is crucial for governments to guide their citizens with policies. At the same time, these policies should be tailored to the specific situations of local areas and help increase the well-being of citizens. In the long term, increasing the awareness of citizens encourages citizens to engage in sustainable practice actively.

Works Cited

  • Lou, Tianyang, et al. “Different Perceptions of Belief: Predicting Household Solid Waste Separation Behavior of Urban and Rural Residents in China.” Sustainability 12.18 (2020): 7778.
  • Ye, Qing, et al. “China’s green future and household solid waste: Challenges and prospects, Waste Management. ” Elsevier 105 (2020): 328-338.