Beyond An Eco-Dictatorship: Sorting Out a New Definition of ‘Waste’ in Shanghai

Waste collection point in Shanghai. Source: China Dialogue (x

This is what a waste collection point looks like in Shanghai. Under the cheery banner of “sorting waste helps create new resources, let’s work together to build a greener city” lies four different bins – ‘Dry Waste’, ‘Wet Waste’, ‘Recyclable Waste’, and ‘Hazardous Waste’.

Rapid urbanisation has developed a serious problem of waste in China. In 2018, China instilled an import ban on waste from other countries to curb the waste pollution brought to the country. Managing the problem of waste – what to do with it, where it goes, what impact it has on the environment and people – has since turn inwards. 

Owing to its population, Shanghai produces around 9 million tonnes of municipal solid waste (MSW) a year (Zhou et al., 2019). In light of this and in line with the national development strategy, her government has implemented a new MSW classification policy, making it compulsory sort household waste according to the above four classifications.

Some might term this an ‘eco-dictatorship’, with fines and social credit penalties coming from the top. However, the Shanghai government has also implemented a series of publicity and educational activities, hire specialist guides at waste collection points, and provide credit-goods exchange types of incentives (Ibid.). Strangely enough, this top-down approach is playing a vital role in laying the foundation for more bottom-up approaches. Hence, I believe that this new policy has wholly transformed the ‘waste’ scene in Shanghai, beyond an eco-dictatorship. 

When the same waste-sorting system was introduced in 2000, it actually failed to cultivate such habits in citizens. Today, with support from NGOs, social groups, and new businesses, a shift is beginning in the community. These new actors, alongside the government’s policy, are transforming notions of ‘waste’.

All of this transformation begins with the key message behind the waste-sorting policy – there is more to the lifecycle of waste products, beyond collection bins or landfills. Waste can be ‘disposed of’ in some of the following ways (Ibid.):

  1. Dry Waste: Used to generate electricity
  2. Wet Waste: Used to produce biogas, or used as natural fertilisers
  3. Recyclable Waste: Recycled into new resources by recycling enterprises
  4. Hazardous Waste: Treated at was treatment plants

Waste-sorting hence becomes a necessity as it helps ensure that waste can undergo the correct process. This has introduced a new idea of ‘waste’ to citizens – ‘waste’ can be a valuable resource and can be used to regenerate useful and valued commodities.

“It seems like we deal with dirty stuff, but nevertheless are in a rising industry.”

Luo Qi, a full-time garbage collector in Shanghai.”

Other than facilitating a change in the perception of ‘waste’, the waste-sorting policy has given the waste industry a new facelift. From a shocking 250 million yuan spent on waste-sorting trash cans to an average monthly income of 16000 yuan (twice the average in Shanghai!) for waste sorters, working in the waste industry does not seem abhorrent to many now. Previously on ‘Plastic China’, the wealth inequalities and perceptions of this ‘dirty’ industry were exposed. Today, instead of low-paying wages and the dismissal that comes with waste-related jobs, waste-sorting has generated new industries and job opportunities in Shanghai, garnering the appreciation of many citizens.

By introducing a formal waste-sorting policy, the government has sent ripples across the traditional discourses surrounding waste, redefining ‘waste’ in Shanghai. Instead of just associations with ideas of ‘dirty’ or ‘pollution’, waste is slowly being recognised as a valuable commodity and seen as a way to revitalise the economy. This changing narrative is also reinforced by the involvement of other actors. The new policy, definition, and actors collectively promote environmentally-conscious habits amongst Shanghai’s citizens, redefining the enviro-socio relationship through ‘waste’. This seems to be a promising solution to the overflowing landfills in China and a way to maintain the natural environmental in the face of urbanisation.  


Zhou, M.H., Shen, S. L., Xu, Y. S. & Zhou, A. N., 2019. ‘New Policy and Implementation of Municipal Solid Waste Classification in Shanghai, China’, Int J Environ Res Public Health, vol. 16, no. 3099.

4 thoughts on “Beyond An Eco-Dictatorship: Sorting Out a New Definition of ‘Waste’ in Shanghai

  1. I am now wondering what I will feel if my government ‘forced’ me to sort my trash! While this may seem a little draconian, I wholeheartedly believe (as you have rightfully pointed out) that it is for the greater good – a little inconvenience for everyone do go a long way to create huge benefits for the environment and economy.

    Ultimately, I believe that the term ‘eco-dictatorship’ occludes the (probably) well intentions of the state to solve this environmental issue. In an age where waste is an undeniably pertinent urban issue, do you believe that Shanghai’s waste management policy is also applicable to other cities?
    Understandably, the differing political climates of other cities may impede such strict regulatory policies, but I personally believe in the merits of mobilising community efforts to manage waste. For example, might it be better to complement fiscal penalties by adding incentives to reward household compliance?

    It will be really interesting to hear your thoughts on how we might ‘reinvent’ the notion of eco-dictatorship – such that other cities might be more receptive to likewise promote community efforts in managing waste!


  2. Hi! I really enjoyed this insightful read! Having delved into the poor recycling culture in Singapore despite the state’s National Recycling Program, I find the success of Shanghai’s waste-sorting policy admirable. Given the current lack of awareness on distinguishing recyclables in Singapore, coupled with the relatively weak environmental consciousness, I feel that a similar policy would be beneficial in Singapore. Since the state has commonly employed strict (and often labelled draconian) policies on other matters (such as anti-littering fines), a stringent recycling policy that utilises penalties alongside incentives would arguably work well. Additionally, Shanghai’s move in increasing the income of waste workers is really inspiring too. Singapore could consider adopting a similar strategy in formalising the waste recovery efforts of karang gunis and freegans, whose expertise are highly valuable for boosting domestic recycling and reducing waste. It would be great if Singapore could one day boast a strong recycling and freegan culture!


  3. I think the idea that these very stringent regulations have led to a reconceptualisation of how waste is valued is so interesting. The fact that people working in waste disposal are paid well is also such an important step in the right direction. I think that despite some calling it an ‘eco-dictatorship’, that perception is partially because waste was previously such an unregulated area. We have strict rules that we must obey on lots of different things in cities e.g road rules/ taxes etc. I think once it becomes normal, people might respond to it differently. Thanks for such a great post!


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