One Year of Waste Segregation in Shanghai: Success or Failure?

Published on by Green Initiatives

It was a typical Sunday morning in Shanghai as Rachel lugged two heavy black trash bags down the steps of her apartment, towards her community waste sorting area. As she arrived, community volunteers and individuals were already hustling back and forth between the 4 distinctly colored waste bins. The area was packed with residents and volunteers wearing their orange jackets screaming “ni shi shenme laji” ("What garbage are you?")

Sounds familiar? 

As Shanghai’s waste segregation policy hits the 1-year mark since its launch, we take a look at the city's waste handling journey and find out where we stand today.

Source: China Dialogue


In March 2017, the central government set out plans to implement a standardized system of sorting rubbish in 46 major cities.

China has long overtaken the US as one of the world’s biggest producers of waste. The country produces 10bn tons of solid waste every year and some cities are literally surrounded by garbage. In 2018, around 26,000 tons of domestic waste were collected within Shanghai alone.

Due to this immense production of waste, ten cities were selected as ‘Zero Waste City' pilots to implement regulations that would control the increase of growing municipal solid waste. Shanghai became the first pilot city to introduce those regulations.

Source: China Water Risk

On July 1, 2019, the Shanghai government introduced a compulsory waste segregation policy. This required Shanghai’s 26 million residents, including commercial establishments, to segregate waste at the point of origin. Shanghai's regulation requires people to sort trash into four categories - residual waste, wet waste, recyclable waste, and hazardous waste. Individuals who failed to do so may be fined up to 200 yuan, while companies and institutions face fines of up to 50,000 yuan.

How effective were these regulations within the last year you ask?


Within just four weeks of the launch of the new policy, the average daily amount of recyclables increased by 10 percent, kitchen waste increased by 15 percent and residual waste fell by 11.7 percent compared with the previous month, according to Shanghai's Urban Management Bureau.

This is massive progress, considering the city produces 26,000 tons of waste every day.

Compared with 2018, the average amount of recyclables collected daily in 2019 increased by 431.8 percent. The amount of kitchen waste and hazardous waste collected also grew by 88.8 percent and 504.1 percent respectively. And the amount of residual waste decreased by 31 percent.

Source: 上海市人民政府

These large percentages in increase are due to the fact that before the waste regulation came into play, waste figures were basically nonexistent in Shanghai. Therefore, current data is being compared to figures with a low base rate. Now, all waste collection data is uploaded district wise to the Shanghai municipality database.

The decrease in residual waste is a sign that the policy is working, as it means that less waste is going into landfills and incineration facilities. 

Instead, more of our waste is getting recycled and value is being recovered. Treating residual waste is always challenging and very expensive, be it in a landfill or in an incinerator. If handled improperly, toxic pollutants and inorganic chemicals from the treatment of residual waste can leach into the soil, air, or water. Landfills take up massive amounts of space and put nearby communities at health risks.

Therefore, with a decrease in residual waste, cities like Shanghai are able to divert more trash to processing and recycling facilities instead of simply dumping tons of unsorted waste into toxic landfills.

Residual waste being prepared for incineration.

Source: 上观新闻


Shanghai has one of the world’s largest waste-to-energy incineration plants to handle the residual waste generated by the city. This facility can generate up to 1.5 billion kilowatt hours of power, while the slag from the burned waste can be recycled into building materials.

The wet waste gets sent to specialized composting facilities which generates rich organic fertilizer. The hazardous waste gets treated to rid them of harmful chemicals before being disposed safely. And the recyclable waste gets sent to different processing facilities to extract precious raw materials, which are then pumped back into the manufacturing value chain to produce new products.

Staff tracking and monitoring garbage truck movements and waste flow within a waste facility.

Source: 上观新闻

Shipping containers filled with waste being transported along the Huangpu River to a processing facility.

Source: 上观新闻

The Mayor of Shanghai applauded the city, citing the regulations as a “huge success”.

"In the past, 41.4 percent of the trash in the city was buried in landfills, and with the support of residents' garbage classification actions, this ratio has been reduced to 20 percent," Ying said. "I give a sincere salute and a big thumbs up to you, the people of Shanghai."

Source: China Daily

Though these regulations have been a huge success in the past year, fines for those that did not follow the regulations have also been imposed. Shanghai's urban management and law enforcement authorities have imposed fines in 7,662 cases over irregularities as of April 2020 after new household garbage-sorting rules took effect on July 1, 2019.

Failure to sort and dispose of trash correctly (60.9 percent), failure to install proper garbage-sorting containers (35.2 percent) and mixed collection and transportation (1.6 percent) were the top irregularities, the Shanghai Urban Management and Law Enforcement Bureau said.

Source: China Daily

The success from Shanghai’s complex waste segregation regulations has influenced other Chinese cities to follow suit. Guangzhou, Kunming, Xi’An and Beijing are a few cities have followed Shanghai’s footsteps and made garbage sorting mandatory for all households and businesses.


As is the case in many developing countries, China’s informal waste collection economy is a highly efficient sector when it comes to sorting and recycling waste in cities.

In China, 3.3 to 5.6 million people work in waste collection and management.

However, the future of this informal economy is quite dim as Shanghai is seeking to formalize its waste sector. Following illegal dumping scandals, pushback from residents who reject informal collection centers as dirty, and a greater awareness of the need for transparency, accountability and better waste management processes, the city has tightened up its waste management practices.

The 2019 waste regulations served as a stepping stone in formalizing Shanghai’s waste sector. While this has put many collectors, who rely on scavenging waste as a livelihood at risk, many feel that informal waste-sorting is inefficient and dirty; even leading to high levels of secondary pollution.

“The low operating cost, lack of supervision, and crude processing facilities [is] common to this group… In my view, they have a negative impact on the recycling economy,”  said a representative from the China Zero Waste Alliance.


As the government officials celebrate the success of the policy, we believe that the city has made tremendous progress, given the short span of the implementation.

However, there is still a lot of work to be done. Even with all the current infrastructure available, Shanghai is still struggling to handle all the waste generated every day, especially when it comes to handling wet waste. 

Currently, there are new facilities under construction which should help reduce the gap significantly. However, there will still be a capacity shortfall.

Source: SBag

At Green Initiatives we believe that the best way to resolve this issue would be to reduce the amount of waste we generate every day. 

Simple steps like reducing the amount of food waste we generate everyday will go a long way in helping Shanghai handle its waste. The same goes for all kinds of disposable plastics and food containers, most of which are not recyclable.

Afterall, ‘Recycling Is Not The Solution, It Is The Last Option.’

While the Shanghai Municipality handles the city’s residual, wet and hazardous waste; recyclable waste is still being handled by private players. Many organizations have launched various projects on tackling waste in Shanghai; one of them being Green Initiatives.


Around the same time that the Shanghai government launched the comprehensive waste segregation policy, Green Initiatives started the Waste As Resource (WAR) Program.

WAR’s core objective is to inspire a group of “Change Agents” within businesses, to connect the dots between consumption and waste, between thoughts and actions, and promote active engagement on environmental issues and solutions.

WAR is a deep dive into the entire waste disposal, collection and management process of organizations. The focus is not just to collect and recycle waste, but to understand how the waste we generate everyday impacts our lives, our health, our environment, and our cities.

Participating organizations receive waste collection data reports, as well as cashback for the value of the discarded waste, based on the quantity collected.

To learn more about this project click on this link.