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From Trash to Cash
Waste classification rule creates new opportunities for businesses
By Li Nan  ·  2019-08-19  ·   Source: NO. 34 AUGUST 22, 2019
A control center of Beijing Chaoyang Clean Incineration Center on July 26 (WAGN XIANG)

Summer used to be a slack season for Fu Yonglin, owner of Jiuyuan Plastic Products in Taizhou, east China's Zhejiang Province. "We used to sell only a few dozen trash bins in summer," Fu said.

But it's a different story this year. His factory has remained ablaze with lights even at midnight since May. Stacks of bins that have different compartments for different kinds of garbage have been rolling off the busy production lines, when they are immediately loaded onto trucks lined up in front of the factory.

Fu attributes the surging demand to the mandatory garbage sorting implemented in neighboring Shanghai on July 1. On June 28, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development announced that garbage sorting would become mandatory in 46 big cities by the end of 2020 and Shanghai became the pilot city to implement the regulation.

Fu is not the only one buried by orders in Taizhou, China's largest plastic product manufacturing center dotted with 10,000 factories. Bags to put the sorted garbage in are also in great demand. There are four kinds of bags for four kinds of waste, differing in color and thickness: for toxic waste, kitchen waste, recyclable materials and other garbage.

On JD.com, one of China's largest online marketplaces, the volume of waste bags bought by Shanghai-based consumers in the June 21-30 period alone jumped nearly 70 times year on year. Shanghai customers also searched for "waste sorting bags" on the Internet almost 800 times more during mid-June than last year.

A truck for collecting perishable garbage loads the waste in a community in southwest China's Chongqing on June 27 (XINHUA)

Creating new occupations

Mandatory garbage sorting is creating business opportunities as well as new jobs, including trainers to help sort trash and bin supervisors who watch over the bins several hours a day, telling people who come to dispose of their garbage the correct way to do it.

Trash bin salespeople have become the first batch of garbage sorting trainers. Jiuyuan Plastic Products' Luo is one of them. After ordering the new bins, many township authorities invited him to train the locals to sort their garbage. Luo is glad to share his knowhow. "It brings me more orders. Also, it enables me to do something for the local communities," the 31-year-old said.

Unlike Luo, who works as a part-time trainer, 67-year-old Zhao Cuncai has landed a full-time job as a trash-sorting guide with Beijing Zhiming Yongtai Science and Technology (BZYST). In recent years, Beijing has hired third parties, including BZYST, to handle garbage sorting.

"We have installed smart trash bins in more than 100 residential communities in east Beijing, helping and supervising residents' garbage sorting. We also transport the sorted garbage to waste yards," BZYST Project Manager Liu Jie told Beijing Review. The company now has 300 such guides working in east Beijing.

"Three fourths of the residents in this community need my help," Zhao said. "Many don't know how to sort garbage properly."

In addition, door-to-door services such as dropping trash and collecting recyclable materials are now available on Taobao, China's largest online marketplace.

A volunteer explains garbage classification to kids in Shijiazhuang, north China's Hebei Province, on July 4 (XINHUA)

The Internet Plus approach

Besides on-the-spot human guidance, apps for electronic devises are being created to help people sort garbage and some areas, like Chaoyang District in Beijing, are encouraging residents to use these apps to better sort their garbage.

A typical example is the app created by BZYST. Residents have to take a photo of their garbage and the app informs them which bin they have to put it in. When a resident puts the correctly sorted garbage into the correct smart bin, he or she is rewarded with bonus points, which can be used to collect gifts. Internet giants such as Alibaba, Baidu and JD.com have also launched their own online garbage-sorting apps.

JD.com's "trash-sorting assistant" goes one step further. It is based on advanced artificial intelligence technology including computer vision and natural language processing. If users type in the name of the waste or take a photo of it, they will be instructed how to dispose of it correctly.

"China is breaking new ground in sustainability in a very practical way," JD.com spokesperson Brad Burgess told Beijing Review. "It's an exciting time to be part of this unfolding story."

"Garbage-sorting apps help to increase user loyalty for e-commerce platforms and attract new users for startups," Cao Lei, a researcher with Hangzhou-based E-Commerce Research Center, added.

Lightening the load

Garbage sorting is a blessing for the trash disposal industry, especially the incineration process, according to Sun Yongxin, a production supervisor with the Beijing Chaoyang Clean Incineration Center.

According to Sun, well-sorted garbage leaves fewer residues after it is burnt. "If construction waste and metal are sorted out before incineration, the slag will be reduced to one third," he told Beijing Review.

How to manage wastewater has long been a headache for the trash disposal industry since its disposal involves a complicated process to ensure it doesn't contaminate the soil or drinking water resources. It is usually recycled, which needs greater resources like manpower and energy.

"If garbage is well sorted, there would be less kitchen waste for the incinerator, which would produce less wastewater," Sun said.

Less residue and wastewater means a lesser load for the incinerator, which will enable the machine to run better and longer.

Get a green package

Thanks to China's booming e-commerce industry, the number of packages delivered in 2018 amounted to over 50 billion, the highest in the world for five straight years. So how to deal with the mountain of wrapping waste, including boxes, thermocol and tape, and go green is a pressing issue for the delivery industry.

Xie Xiaowen, a contributing researcher with the China Society of Logistics, said mandatory garbage sorting will increase consumers' awareness of the need for environment protection, making them opt for more environment-friendly and simpler packaging. This will push e-commerce and delivery companies to reuse packaging materials and optimize their business model.

In fact, logistic giants such as SF Express, JDLogistics and Cainiao Network have taken steps to make their packages more environment-friendly. In 2017, JDLogistics started its Green Stream Initiative to promote the use of sustainable packaging materials and reduce the environmental impact of the entire supply chain, using narrower tape and biodegradable boxes. Customers who return the boxes are rewarded with bonus points, which can be exchanged for goods. "We expect to reduce the number of boxes used throughout the supply chain by 10 billion by 2020," JD.com's Burgess said.

"With stricter environment protection regulations, the delivery industry should pay more attention to green packaging and recycling. Reusable and biodegradable materials should be widely used. In this way, China's delivery industry can go green," Xie added.

According to researcher Cao, with garbage sorting becoming mandatory, a "new ocean" of business opportunities is coming into being. It's creating new jobs and new software programs, and these and other measures will result in environment-friendly changes in many sectors, including China's delivery industry.

Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar

Comments to linan@bjreview.com

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