Chen Liwen was nothing but encouraging as she pulled out the plastic bags that had been thrown into the food scraps bucket with the corn husks and the eggshells.
“You did great,” she said to the store owner, explaining that the plastic should go into the yellow container, not the green one. “Next time you can do even better.”
After all, it was only the second day of supervised trash sorting in Xicai village, a dusty collection of about 480 houses with no indoor plumbing in Hebei province, outside Beijing.
Those residents include Chen’s parents. So the zero-waste advocate decided to start her campaign to teach China to recycle here, in her hometown.
“You need to organize people to start a waste reduction system, and it’s hard in the city because there are too many people,” said Chen, who leads the environmental group China Zero Waste Alliance and is trying to teach the nation to recycle, one village at a time.
“In the villages, people know each other, so it’s not so hard to organize people. Also, they have land, so composting can be done very easily,” she said.
Up until the 1980s, there was relatively little garbage in China. The country was poor, so people didn’t buy much, and they certainly didn’t waste much.
Then came the economic boom — and with it came trash. Mountains of consumerist trash. Computer parts, plastic packaging, milk cartons, broken cellphones, polystyrene, cardboard boxes.
Now, with the prevalence of food delivery services — a customer can get a cup of bubble tea or a single soft-serve ice cream delivered in China for a nominal fee — and online shopping, there are new kinds of trash.
Although the average Chinese person produces about half the solid waste of the average American, there are many more people in China. That means China throws out about 60 million takeout food containers every day.
But there is no real recycling system. Instead, there’s an informal network of “trash pickers” — usually migrants from rural areas who come to the city to scour through urban garbage — who extract anything of value from refuse bins and take it to huge sorting centers outside the city.
It’s not unusual to see motorized tricycles chugging along with a truck-size load of polystyrene containers or carefully flattened boxes piled on the back.
This means that recycling only happens when it’s profitable. Plastic bottles are not worth recycling when oil prices are low — old bottles lose their cost advantage over virgin plastic when oil prices fall — and the price of paper fluctuates.
Buried under waste, the Chinese government is trying to change this.
For starters, it has started banning imports of solid waste, a practice that began in the 1980s as Chinese manufacturers looked for cheap raw materials. By the time the ban took effect last year, China was importing about 8 million tons of plastic waste alone each year.
It banned household waste plastics, unsorted waste paper and waste textiles at the beginning of last year, and this month added scrap metal, ship parts and auto parts to the list. The government plans to phase out imports of all waste by the end of 2019, except for material that China cannot substitute.
But this won’t have much impact unless China also improves the way it deals with domestically produced waste.
“There’s no proper recycling system in China. It’s a very urgent problem,” said Eric Lau, a campaigner at Greenpeace in Beijing.
“The government has all these policies and slogans, but if you go around the city you see all the waste is still mixed. There has been no change,” Lau said. “We need a system, and a system that runs smoothly.”
The Chinese government is very good at writing rules, analysts say, but less so at enforcing them.
Even when residential complexes have separate containers for waste, residents seldom sort their garbage, knowing that the scavengers will take care of that.
But in Beijing, which churns out more than 22,000 tons of rubbish every day, the big recycling centers have been shut down or moved farther out of the city as the government has tried to control the capital’s population and land usage. It has also introduced restrictions on incineration to try to tackle the air pollution problems.
The central government announced in 2017 that it would make trash separation compulsory for city dwellers by the end of 2020 — and those who didn’t sort their waste would be charged fees for sorting. It wants one-third of the waste produced by large cities to be recycled by the end of next year.
But changing entrenched behavior will take a long time, said Frank Chen, director of recycling at the China Plastics Processing Industry Association. “Maybe it will take until the next century.”
Yes, the industry at the heart of the problem isn’t convinced China can learn to recycle.
“We’ve told the people many times to recycle and teach them the importance of recycling, but no one listens to us. No one cares,” he said. “Chinese people understand only one thing: money.”
But Chen, who became an environmentalist in college and started her NGO in 2009, is going to try. She is taking matters into her own hands, starting in villages around where she grew up.
Chen’s father, Chen Lianxiang, is proud of the impact that his daughter has had on the village, even if he laments the fact that she deals with trash all day long. “There was garbage everywhere in the past,” he said.
Chen and her team had allocated two buckets to each household in the village, a yellow one for trash and a green one for organic waste. The latter is composted in a field on the outskirts of the village. Bottles, glass and plastics were already being recycled for money.
Every day at 2 p.m., a local man drives a specially converted trash collection tricycle through the town, with Chen on her bullhorn telling the locals to bring out their containers. Then she and her fellow volunteers talk them through the recycling process, offering gentle guidance to those who are still mixing their trash.
Chen stayed for two months in the first village to help teach people how to separate their trash and then to make sure they did it. But she can’t be everywhere, so she has enlisted locals who now find themselves with time on their hands: the heads of the local women’s associations, a part of the Communist Party apparatus.
“They used to be in charge of birth control, but now they don’t have to do this anymore,” said Chen, referring to the government’s decision to drop its decades-old one-child policy.
Chen’s efforts are something of a novelty in her home village, where many of the elderly residents idle away their days playing go, a kind of Chinese chess, on the sidewalk or sitting on stoops solving the problems of the world.
The villagers said they were keen to give it a try.
But others do not put recycling high on their priority list. “We understand the garbage sorting,” said Duan Hongquan, shrugging as he came out of his gate to see Chen, “but in these villages we don’t even have sewerage systems. Why should we care about trash?”
The next problem is one of scale. Xicai has 1,600 residents. That’s one-millionth — or 0.000001 percent — of China’s population.