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April 24, 2019

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Garbage-sorting rules can work better with a bit of human touch

SHANGHAI has been implementing new garbage-sorting standards on a trial basis.

Some local neighborhoods employ high-tech gadgets powered by sensors to detect if garbage is sorted as per rules before it is dumped. Some can even track down offenders who violate the rules.

Given my own observations, supervision is mostly done by people, usually volunteers organized into groups who take turns standing near trash bins to ensure compliance.

It’s a thankless task, because come rain or shine, these people have to watch over the overflowing bin, endure the odor and sometimes even soil their hands to tear open a garbage bag and empty its contents into the bin.

In my folks’ neighborhood, volunteers carry a portable device to scan garbage e-cards issued to every household. Each time the trash is correctly sorted and dumped, residents chalk up a bonus point on their e-cards. Accumulated points can be redeemed for items like garbage bags or paper tissues.

The new garbage disposal rules have caused some minor inconvenience. Residents now have to take out the trash during given time periods, for example, 10am-12pm and 6pm-8pm. Miss the deadline and you’ll have to keep your garbage inside your residence for another six hours or overnight.

People are struggling to learn the new rules governing what is designated as “dry” or “wet” garbage and what should go into which bin. This takes time, as the rules can get confusing. For example, my son’s used diaper is deemed “dry” garbage, whereas a used paper napkin drenched in soy sauce is also considered “dry.”

What’s worse is the moment when one has to open a sealed bag and empty disgusting food scraps into a big, open and filthy bin. Garbage juice often spills out.

Misplaced resources

I was helped a few times by some kind-hearted volunteers who did this job in my stead. Kudos to their professionalism, but they should be given a face mask and a pair of rubber gloves to protect them from the stench and germs.

I’m a big supporter of garbage sorting, because the millions of tons of household garbage produced daily in Shanghai’s ever-expanding metropolis used to end up in some bulging landfills, resulting in a wanton waste of land and adding to the city’s pollution problem as well.

Another rationale for supporting stringent garbage-sorting rules is that trash is essentially a misplaced resource. Separated, cleansed and processed, it can be put back into the economy to benefit mankind.

After the trial run ends in June, the new garbage mandate will take full effect and those found guilty of breaching it will be reprimanded and even fined. There is ample evidence that with strong enforcement, the mandate can work magic as successful crackdowns on drink-driving and horn-honking have suggested.

My only concern is about the fairness of enforcing the rules. One recent evening, after I took the trash downstairs, a volunteer pointed me in the direction of the bins and watched from afar as I emptied food scraps into the right bin.

But it all happened in the dark, which left me wondering if such supervision is in some cases — albeit rare — just a formality. In other words, it depends on the individuals to voluntarily abide by the rules.

And garbage collectors will feel the heat from the new standards. I spoke to a garbage collector in my neighborhood one day as he rummaged through a heap of trash. The daily routine for him and his wife is to clean out the trash from bins, load it on to their electric tricycle and dump it at a neighborhood garbage station. The couple are paid an additional 60 yuan (US$8.9) for operating in accordance with the new rules, but the perks will go once the rules take effect in July.

And then the onus will be entirely on these “gatekeepers” to ensure that garbage is not mixed before it heads to a dump.

The husband, an Anhui Province native surnamed Liu, said he would be fined 200 yuan for each item found in a wrong bin during a random check, irrespective of whether the blame lies more with the original offenders or the garbage collectors’ negligence of duty.

Stringency in enforcement is necessary to give teeth to the new rules, but in the meantime authorities can perhaps empathize more with “gatekeepers” like Liu, who are at the forefront of making sure household garbage is well separated before it moves on to the next phase of its possible new life cycle.


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