Guangzhou's rubbish rules show need to go back to recycling basics
New rubbish-sorting rules are putting Guangzhou at the top of the pile, as the first mainland city to test the system - or so it seems.
Unfortunately, it seems that neither the policymakers nor the public are ready to make the effort, if the city's experiences in the first week of the trial phase are anything to go by.
From April 1, residents are required to separate their rubbish into four bins, ones for recyclable waste, kitchen waste, harmful waste and other types of waste.
Households that fail to classify their waste correctly face a fine of up to 50 yuan (HK$59), while organisations violating the rules must pay 500 yuan for each cubic metre of rubbish.
To be fair, the city government set this month as a transition period for people to learn the basics of rubbish sorting and adapt to the new requirements. During this time, it singled out only several dozen communities, some state-owned hotels and all vegetable wholesale markets to start the ball rolling.
All other communities can follow suit if they want, but will not be bound by the law, the urban management authorities say.
But, given the small scale of the experiment, the feedback is not optimistic. A few days before the rules kicked in, reporters from the Southern Metropolis News called all 12 hotlines that had been set up to answer the public's questions on rubbish sorting - and only five could explain clearly how the new system would work.
Then the reporters randomly called four hotlines at other district governments that could supposedly advise residents on how to deal with harmful waste, but none provided any useful information. Instead, they suggested that the reporters call other government departments to get answers.
It seems help will not be easily available to residents, who are basically clueless about sorting out rubbish.
Urban management officials find many are unaware that old clothes are considered 'other types of waste' and not 'recyclable waste'; in one community, the 'recyclable waste' bin became the residents' favourite - they put in all kinds of rubbish, from paper bags to plastic boxes, and paid less attention to the other three.
The idea of rubbish sorting at the source has been considered by the central government for more than a decade to ease the pressure of the increasing amounts of urban waste.
In 2000, the leadership assigned eight cities - Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Hangzhou, Nanjing, Xiamen and Guilin - as pilot cities to launch experimental projects on a smaller scale.
But none of the efforts led to positive results; the obstacles experienced then were all similar to those Guangzhou sees now.
The issue itself posed a paradox: on one hand, officials claimed it was difficult for the public to change old habits of waste disposal, but on the other hand, they would never change if there was no experiment or real action to shape people's attitudes.
And it was unfair to attribute the failure of the trial projects to the public, given that the governments of the pilot cities had not done their part either. In Beijing, for instance, there was no rubbish-sorting centre about a decade ago, so any differentiated waste ended up being remixed when collected by old-style trucks, then delivered to landfills.
A similar story is being played out in Guangzhou this time: according to local media, the administration authorities have only 59 trash trucks that can collect sorted rubbish.
Though the loading capacities of those 59 trucks are not revealed, this should be seen in the light that, as a city of more than 10 million people, Guangzhou produced nearly 15,000 tonnes of waste each day last year.
It is also unclear whether the city has built enough sorting centres. A section chief of the Urban Management Bureau admitted the city's first waste-sorting treatment plant, meant to deal only with kitchen rubbish, was still at a planning stage.
Considering the complexities involved, it might be too early to conclude whether Guangzhou's effort will again become a beautiful but impractical dream.
But it is fair to say that, given the situation in the first week of its experiment, Guangzhou seems to have learned little from other cities.
Last but not least, if the city government itself is not ready for the task, how can it penalise residents who flout the new rules with fines of 50 yuan to 500 yuan?