Liwen Chen is the founder of “Zero Waste Village”. After graduating from Tianjin Normal University with a Master degree in English, she started to work for environmental NGOs since early 2009. From 2009 to August 2015, she worked at the Beijing Global Village and the Nature University, focusing on environmental health and waste issues. During this period, she visited and investigated the operation of more than 30 waste treatment facilities across the country, and promoted the waste sorting in Beijing. From August 2015 to May 2017, she took another master programme of environmental science at the University of Southern California, with a research focus on the historic development of e-waste generation and treatment in China. After returning to China in May 2017, she began to practice waste sorting in multiple rural areas, including Nanyu Village of Baoding, Hebei Province, Xicai Village and Dashaosi Village of Cangzhou, Hebei Province, Mazhai Village of Jinhua, Zhejiang Province and Xicheng Town of Xian County, Hebei Province. Since December 2018, she has been working in Dongyang Township, Guangfeng District, Shangrao City, Jiangxi Province, to explore a normalised and sustainable operating mechanism for waste sorting and treatment.
“Zero-waste City” is an advanced urban environmental management concept that minimizes the environmental impact of solid waste by promoting the formation of green development and lifestyle through waste-reduction and recycling. Under this vision, Environmental NGOs(non-governmental organizations) in China are continuing to push for “small but important” changes. In this dialogue issue, through the experiences of Ms. Liwen Chen, the founder of “Zero-Waste Village”, we discuss the transformation of waste disposal from technological to governance and its future in China.
NGOs must know how to work with the people and communities in order to better play their role as scrutinizing and influencing government decision-making, and thus bringing about systemic changes.
Even in countries and regions with “strong government”, NGOs often still have a role to play. In the early 2000s, due to the rather relaxed political environment brought by the market reform and opening up, in China there was a boost of enthusiasm for advocacy pertaining to the mitigation and adaptation of global climate change. My first job after graduation was with Beijing Global Village, which had done several national initiatives with far reaching influences. For example, it had held an annual Energy Journalists’ Salon, which aimed to increase social awareness on environmental issues. At Global Village, I was able to witness how policies about climate change were put in place through international negotiations (such as the “2009 World Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen “) and this experience prompted me to start working on advocates relating to waste management. From previous experience, it is clear that in order to play their role properly, NGOs need to know how to work with people and communities. The fact is that how people express their demands and participate in advocacy has a significant impact on environmental actions. Many influential NGO initiatives were built upon strong public participation. Since the 1990s, the construction plan of waste incineration and PX projects in the domestic environmental protection field has often sparked controversy, leading to fierce resistance by local urban residents. Take the site selection of waste incineration in Liulitun (Haidian District, Beijing) and Asuwei (Changping District, Beijing) for example. Because the surrounding residents questions via anti-incineration campaigns, which many environmental NGOs also actively participated in, the Liulitun project was never built and the Asuwei project was delayed for five years until 2014.
Actually, NGOs always play a role in scrutinizing and influencing government’s policy-making, and further bringing about systematic change. Vice versa, government policy implementations can also influence and change the actions of NGOs. Their impact on the policy-making does not happen overnight but rather incrementally, and it remains difficult to judge whether an NGO eventually has a decisive influence on policy-making and social change. Taking the disclosure of smoke emission information from waste incineration as an example, before 2015, this information needs to be “disclosed according to application”. We have spent 7-8 years promoting local governments to “actively disclose” information, achieving online network connection and disclosure, which is very meaningful. Although, it is difficult to say whether the public is paying real attention to such valuable information and how much effect this progress actually plays. As time goes on, new problems have also emerged, such as the falsification of data. Despite the efforts of NGOs and government policies on waste sorting, the incineration-based waste treatment method has remained the mainstream approach to dealing with urban solid waste, and today the industry is still developing, with the national incineration rate reaching around 80%.
Figure 1. Waste incineration
Source: Provided by Liwen Chen
China’s industrialization began in the 1980s, but environmental governance did not begin until the 1990s. I decided to work in environmental NGOs because, as a girl who grew up in the countryside, I had a deep feeling about the environment and I was much concerned with the problematic ways in which the environment was managed. For a long time, it was widely believed that the poor education and awareness of the domestic public was the reason for the difficulty in achieving waste sorting. Therefore, my initial intention was not to change policies, but to be able to return to the local environment based on my understanding of global cases and experience and to truly achieve waste sorting through on-site practices. Although some conditions may not be met, domestic waste sorting is still feasible.
For me, “zero-waste” can be understood as a beautiful vision for the future society. Although we have made some small changes, we should not be overly optimistic about the realization of “zero waste”. At present, the issue of waste incineration has not been reversed, and there is still a big gap with other countries and regions. Establishing a “zero waste village” and promoting waste sorting can drive some people to focus on specific issues and change their behaviors, although some changes may be short-term. The short-term nature of such changes is not only personal, but also closely related to the lag in social governance and management mechanisms.
As a social issue, it is not only necessary to raise public awareness and push everyone to take action but more importantly, to return to the level of social governance and further promote changes in the policy environment and decision-making thinking from the bottom-up. Environmental governance actions are not just subject to the will of non-profit organizations, especially in the case of waste sorting, where the government remains a key stakeholder. Without the support and assistance of the government, many practical efforts face bottlenecks and are difficult to implement.
The main reason for choosing to practice in rural areas at that time was that it was difficult to leverage and change the mixed management mode of solidified waste in cities, while there was potential and space for flexible transformation in rural areas. Although urban communities have been trying to do some waste sorting in recent years, the entire system is characterized with mixed collection, transportation, and treatment. Waste sorting is almost useless when all waste ends up in incinerators. Not only did the urban initiations lack motivation, but the overall system design also lacked the consideration of waste sorting. In contrast, rural areas have two advantages: Firstly, from an institutional point of view, the administrative system in rural areas is made up of village, township, town, and county government. Under this system, NGOs are relatively flexible in terms of organizing activities and have a greater potential to play a role and reverse the mixed waste management model. Secondly, from a spatial perspective, rural areas have vast land resources that provide conditions for decentralized waste disposal, whereas waste disposal in cities is constrained by land resources and at least 80% of waste must be treated centrally.
It is relatively easy to motivate the public, especially those living around waste incinerators, to pay attention to waste management issues. In comparison, promoting waste sorting at home is much more difficult. With the improvement of economic income level, the public is increasingly aware of the connection between the living environment and health. The construction of waste incineration plants or landfills is easy to arouse the opposition of nearby residents, but waste sorting can hardly be perceived as an urgent or important issue. There are two main reasons: Firstly, from an environmental point of view, waste is not stored at home for a long time, but disappears once it has been discarded. Such an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality leads to a lower visual impact on the lives of residents. Secondly, from an economic point of view, waste management in China is still under the influence of the planned economy, with public finance paying for it and government outsourcing coordinating it. The practice of not charging according to the amount of waste produced directly leads to a lack of initiative in waste sorting among residents. Overall, the practice of waste sorting in China still remains at the level of publicity and education, lacking legal constraints and economic means.
Figure 2. Waste dumped in drains and roadsides
Source: Provided by Liwen Chen
In the landfill era, waste treatment was led by the government, with regional waste collection and disposal mostly handed over to state-owned sanitation groups. In contrast, in the waste incineration era, waste disposal has begun to be carried out through semi-market-based approaches such as BOT and PPP, and overall waste governance has become involved in the development process of capital and cities. From a social governance perspective, there are two major shortcomings: First, always following the idea of transferring waste to other places, local governance lacks in nearby local treatment paths. Second, the current domestic waste management is still using the simple “movement-style governance”, lacking in “autonomous governance”. Waste sorting should at least be realized at the community level. Community residents’ committees and property management workers should organize and discuss together to form effective public participation, rather than simply setting up waste sorting buckets and asking residents to sort and put them in.
Figure 3. Four kinds of waste bins in Shanghai
Source: Wikimedia Commons
In terms of national policy, on March 2017, the Ministry of Housing and Construction issued the Implementation Plan for the Domestic Waste Sorting System, requiring the trial implementation of mandatory domestic waste sorting in 46 pilot cities. The relevant policy program has stimulated the growth of investments in waste management, of which some of the invested waste treatment facilities are not applicable in practice despite some valuable investment practices. There are still two major dilemmas at the policy-making level in waste sorting: First, the assessment criteria needs further improvement. The current assessment of urban waste sorting rather focuses on the front-end work such as whether the four sorting bins are set up in the community. Although the layout of waste treatment facilities at the back end is also required, it is not the focus of the assessment, which leads to the fact that many of the sorting work done at the front-end still take the path of mixed treatment at the end. Second, the waste sorting policy lacks a more sustainable medium and long-term strategic plan. There is still a lack of five- or ten-year plans for quantifiable assessment indicators and construction plans for waste treatment facilities in waste sorting. The strategic positioning and planning of waste sorting is an important guarantee for steady progress, and it is necessary to gradually improve the construction of waste treatment hardware and facilities to free up space for food waste treatment, and to avoid the embarrassing situation of “sorting first but mixing later”.
Drawing on international experience, we need to adapt to local conditions and avoid “one size fits all”. At present, the difficulty of waste sorting in China is not about technology, but social governance.
When it comes to drawing on international experience, one cannot generalize. Specific regions need to be treated in a specific way and local conditions should be adapted to avoid “one size fits all”. I don’t think we should simply glorify the experience of waste sorting in Japan, northern Europe, or other countries. The social organization model of our country is very different from that of other regions. When it comes to waste issues, China adopts a top-down model, with directives issued by the central government and implemented step by step from provinces, cities, and counties to towns and villages. A typical example is that around 2018, the central government made special arrangements to improve the rural living environment, and made waste management one of the main priorities. Since then, most rural areas, including backward areas, have established a waste collection and transportation management system. Each county must set up a special fund for environmental sanitation in rural areas, at least 60 yuan per person per year, to collect rural waste and send it to county-level waste incineration plants. This kind of movement-style management mode has truly realized the integration of urban and rural waste treatment and rapidly and efficiently improved rural environmental sanitation. However, it does not necessarily apply to waste sorting management, because human behavior change also needs to be a permanent social management, including long-term education management arrangement, not just a simple administrative order.
Regarding international cases, great difference is seen between the East and West in the United States, and in different cities within the same state too. Europe also varies from country to country. Italy is rather an underrated country, and its small cities actually do a good job of sorting waste, especially in terms of composting. The street restaurants in Luxembourg have good experience of sorting their kitchen waste too. Japan has been often referred to by many domestic experts as a successful example of waste disposal, although I don’t think it provides direct lessons for us. After World War II, Japanese cities grew rapidly and built incinerators everywhere to dispose of waste through mass incineration. It is largely ascribed to a better public supervision system that ensures the effective work of these waste incineration plants. However, the widely praised Japanese waste sorting has its shortcomings. In terms of the attributes of waste, the fundamental aspect of waste sorting is the sorting of organic and inorganic matter. As the waste incineration in Japan in the 1970s accounted for 100 percent of waste disposal, when Japan issued the Basic Law for the Promotion of the Formation of a Recycling-oriented Society in 2000, there was indeed very little room for waste recycling and the total amount of recycling was not as high as in China. On the other hand, China has a market-based waste recycling system, and its total recycling volume is much higher than that of Japan, and even much higher than most developed countries. Although, the recycling rate of recyclable materials in Japan is higher and the types of waste sorted are very finely divided. This has something to do with Japan’s social culture and national character in that they can do a good job of fine sorting at home, but there is no need for this in China because we have tens of millions of recyclers in the country. In short, waste sorting should be dealt with in consideration of specific local context, although different from other countries, the Ministry of Housing and Urban and Rural Development formulates a unified waste sorting standard.
I strongly agree with the principle of “Common but Differentiated Responsibilities” adopted by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Negotiations. When developed and developing countries are included in some plans, such as the mandate to reduce emissions and put them into practice, each region has different industries and different ways of living and production, so it is certainly not possible to generalize. Similarly, waste management needs to be tailored to local conditions, for example, in rural areas where agricultural practices are different and some areas have a straw, how waste is collected needs to be adjusted accordingly, rather than taking a one-size-fits-all approach.
Figure 4. Waste sorting and recycling
At present, the difficulty of waste sorting management in China is not technology, but social governance. It is precise because China has adopted a campaign style of governance in many public affairs in the past, rather than a participatory style of governance, which has led to our repeated falls in waste sorting today. Participatory governance requires a consultative process of governance that can ultimately achieve a process in which the majority of people participate. As a very typical environmental problem that requires public participation, waste sorting should be included in the social and public issues. It faces the change of governance methods, of course, including the improvement of governance capacity, such as sustained community participatory management. Since December 2018, we have been promoting waste sorting in Dongyang Township, Guangfeng District, Shangrao City, Jiangxi Province. Until the end of last year, the amount of waste sent to the waste incineration plant has kept reducing, reaching a total waste reduction by more than 50 percent. However, once the town secretary in charge of this matter (waste sorting) is transferred, the follow-up management is likely to be lax. In the short term, people still maintain a certain inertia towards waste sorting, but after the inertia fails, the waste sorting in this area may be virtually useless.
Public affairs governance is a continuous process that requires a dynamic mix of top-down and bottom-up approaches. Take another example, after 2016, the Zhejiang Provincial Government implemented the rural waste sorting via a top-down route. It took two years to complete the rural waste sorting hardware of counties in the whole Zhejiang Province, ranging from classified bucket collection vehicles to kitchen waste treatment equipment. The government’s policy focus was on equipping the hardware but lacks regular management of the policy implementation. However, in the stage of daily maintenance, more and more detailed management is needed, which requires the guidance of corresponding policies and measures.
Figure 5. Dongyang Township Waste Sorting Education Center (left)
and waste disposal site (right)
Source: Provided by Liwen Chen
From the perspective of public education and awareness, the matter of waste sorting not only needs a change of consciousness and cognition but also certain social conditions to transform cognition into behavior. First, it would be difficult to implement the programme if it only educates the people while not providing facilities for waste sorting. Second, the education methods are also very important. We try our best to demonstrate the process in practice on the spot, which is more intuitive to the participants. In addition, the content of training will also be adjusted according to different audiences. For residents, the background and importance of waste sorting will be explained first to help them understand waste sorting and enhance their willingness to put it into practice. For government workers, it is necessary to focus on economic input analysis and help them overcome their fears of difficulty. I think there is no fundamental difference in individual quality. By providing waste sorting education and creating social conditions, it is doable to guide most people to participate in waste management activities.
Figure 6. On-site guidance on waste sorting
Source: Provided by Liwen Chen
Beijing Global Village, whose full title is Beijing Global Village Environmental Education Center, was founded in 1996 as a non-profit environmental organization dedicated to public environmental education.
PX is short for P-Xylene, which is commonly used in the production of plastics, polyester fibers and films. According to the classification standard of acute toxicity of foreign compounds recommended by World Health Organization under the United Nations and Chinese Acute Toxicity Test (GB15193.3-2003), PX belongs to low toxicity. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, breathing in high concentrations of PX over a short period of time can cause dizziness, nausea, vomiting and other symptoms.
Discussants: Yunqing Xu and Shih-yang Kao
Research Assistants: Xiqi Dou, Qinyu Zhang, Yitong Dong