‘Plastic Smart Cities’ in China

By Huang Jiangqin

At least two days every week, Zhang Shiqing walks along the shores of the Queen’s Bay in Sanya, a tourist hotspot in south China’s Hainan Province, to collect garbage from the beach. “It takes at least three hours to make the six-kilometer trip down and back,” she said.

Publicity material for Sanya’s “Plastic Smart Cities” demonstration project.

Queen’s Bay is located near Tenghai Community, also known as Houhai. It is a favorite tourist destination and a pilot community for building Sanya into a “plastic smart city.” As the women’s affairs director of the Tenghai Community Committee, Zhang has actively participated in the community’s regular activities to remove garbage from the beach and reduce plastic pollutants. On November 21, 2021, Sanya organized a fourth quarter beach cleaning as part of its “Plastic Smart Cities” demonstration project. Within one hour, 314.4 kilograms of garbage were removed including 210 kilograms of plastic waste, accounting for 70 percent of all the garbage.

To build a Plastic Smart City, Sanya has made considerable efforts to get communities involved in joint construction and governance by fostering participation enthusiasm. In March 2020, as a pilot city for China’s “Zero Waste Cities” program, Sanya officially joined the World Wildlife Fund (WWF)’s global “Plastic Smart Cities” network, seeking to become the first Plastic Smart City in China.

A Zero Waste Philosophy

The world is enduring a rapid process of urbanization. According to a UN report, the urban population will reach 6.7 billion by 2050, accounting for two-thirds of the global population. Cities are the most intensive areas of human activity and the main source of plastic waste. An estimated 60 percent of plastic marine debris derives from cities. Plastic waste has made its way from land into rivers and then into the oceans. According to a 2016 UN report published by the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, 75 percent of the world’s marine debris is plastic. But plastic products have only been around for a little more than 100 years. According to a report titled “Solving Plastic Pollution Through Accountability” released by the WWF in 2019, more than 75 percent of all plastic products ever made have been discarded.

In 2019, the WWF launched the global “Plastic Smart Cities” initiative. The aim was to accelerate formulation of solutions for problems caused by plastic pollution by building a knowledge sharing platform based on cities to share best practices in plastic reduction, support the circular economy, and improve waste management. The initiative also seeks to motivate relevant stakeholders including governments, enterprises, the public, and research institutions to find solutions. So far, more than 20 cities around the world have joined the initiative. In China, Sanya and Yangzhou joined the initiative successively in 2020, becoming China’s first “Plastic Smart Cities.”

Zhang Yimo, director of the WWF’s Ocean and Plastic Program, said that the WWF launched the global “No Plastic in Nature” initiative back in 2019, which advocated reducing usage of plastic products and effectively managing them throughout their whole life cycles. Implementation of the “Plastic Smart Cities” initiative was an important starting point for plastic reduction that aligned perfectly with the concept of the “Zero Waste Cities” pilot project launched by the Chinese government. Both are dedicated to effective management and treatment of garbage to reduce the impact of plastic pollution on urban development and human health.

In 2018, China released a work plan for its “Zero Waste Cities” pilot project and designated 11 cities and five regions including Sanya as pilot “Zero Waste Cities.” The aim of the plan was to promote the formation of a green development mode and lifestyle, reduce solid waste at the source, utilize waste as a resource, and reduce the volume of landfills to minimize the environmental impact of solid waste. By 2025, the solid waste treatment system and capacity will be improved significantly. 

Why was Sanya chosen to become China’s first Plastic Smart City? “If a city is too big, it’s very difficult to make it happen,” Zhang explained. “If a city is too small, it might also be difficult due to limited resources and lack of enthusiasm from the local government. Sanya is just the right size and already a pioneer of China’s ‘Zero Waste Cities’ policy. Therefore, we didn’t hesitate to choose it.”

After a field survey at the end of 2020, a WWF expert team designated the Wuzhizhou Islet and its nearby Tenghai Community in Sanya’s Haitang District the pilot zone for Plastic Smart City construction. The aim was to explore a production and consumption mode for both environmental protection and economic benefits by reducing the volume of solid waste at the source, strengthening monitoring and research, improving waste management, promoting environmental education for the public, and conducting international exchange. The pilot zone is expected to become Sanya’s first “plastic smart demonstration zone.”

Urban-Rural Plastic Waste Management

Cities vary in population size and industrial structure, resulting in different problems related to plastic reduction. Thus, the WWF tailored guidelines specifically for plastic reduction in Yangzhou: combine urban-rural household waste classification with plastic pollution control.

Yangzhou, in east China’s Jiangsu Province, is located at the intersection of the Yangtze River and the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal. Although plastic restrictions have been imposed for many years, the city’s plastic reduction has not been very successful. According to Yang Weidong, deputy director of the city’s Urban Management Bureau, before joining the “Plastic Smart Cities” initiative, the city did not have a complete policy support and evaluation system nor did it crack down hard enough on underground plastic workshops. “Plastic bags were not effectively banned in farm produce markets and shopping malls,” said Yang. “Many white pollutants were piling up in the rivers and ponds in rural areas, resulting in water pollution of the Yangtze River.”

In April 2020, Yangzhou joined the “Plastic Smart Cities” initiative. After a number of field surveys, the WWF experts and technicians studied the status of Yangzhou’s plastic waste treatment and decided to make the three towns of Touqiao, Lidian, and Shatou in the city’s Guangling District a pilot zone. Measures were taken to start waste classification at homes, with emphasis placed on dealing with the problems in the pilot rural areas to promote comprehensive urban-rural plastic waste management.

“The first problem we solved was getting solid waste into garbage bins,” said Leng Shan, deputy director of Guangling District’s Environmental Sanitation Office. Urban residents are used to throwing their garbage into bins. However, in the villages under the administration of the three towns, residents used to throw their garbage into huge open-air garbage pools. “The garbage pools were a mess with garbage spilling all over the place,” recalled Leng. “When new garbage bins were installed, villagers didn’t seem to like the idea at first. Some of the bins were thrown into rivers, and others were stolen or set on fire. Terrible things happened.” 

After many setbacks, the task force gradually found solutions. “People in rural areas rely heavily on human connections,” said Leng. “To get the ball rolling, we sought advice from the most respected village elders, village heads, and chiefs of villagers’ committees and asked them to take the lead and mobilize the villagers into action.”

After a period of rural household waste classification and rural living environment improvement, the three pilot towns have changed considerably. A total of 2,153 garbage pools were demolished, 2,509 garbage collection points renovated, 696 classified garbage platforms built, 11,340 garbage bins were installed, and 294 bulletin boards were built. The towns have been equipped with 39 classified garbage transport vehicles and a professional transport team of 69 workers.

Leng reported that finding solid industrial waste in farming fields is a relic of the past. Garbage classification facilities have been fully installed in the villages, supported by regular garbage transportation systems operating simultaneously in urban and rural areas.

“We still have a long way to go to build a plastic smart city,” said Leng on the long-term plan. “We will continue to strengthen our capacity in collection, transportation, and publicity while improving our abilities in secondary classification of garbage. Sometimes, residents don’t know how to classify garbage properly, so it falls on us to sort it. In the future, secondary classification will not be necessary when residents sort it properly at the start. Of course, there’s still a long way to go.”

Corporate Social Responsibility

In the agricultural town of Shatou, the most serious plastic pollution comes from abandoned agricultural film and crop plastics. At the turn of seasons, abandoned films used in farming would be thrown into garbage pools alongside household garbage, resulting in destructive pollution to the environment.

Generally speaking, if the economic benefits of solid waste recycling are strong, the market will operate smoothly. However, the economic benefits of recycling disposable solid waste such as plastic wrap, agricultural film, and single-use tableware are miniscule. Without policy support, the market won’t budge.  

To solve relevant problems, the Guangling District Environmental Sanitation Office started cooperating with plastic recycling enterprises to provide local villagers with door-to-door collection of used agricultural films and plastics and pay 20 percent higher than the average price at the local market. Recycling enterprises then process the used film to be reused. A closed-loop waste treatment system is forming.

Building recycling infrastructure and developing consumer markets for recycled materials will help to reduce plastic pollution. “Getting recyclable plastics back into the recyclable chain can avoid waste from the start,” said Leng. “What used to be easily tossed away has acquired clear value. Optimizing usage of renewable resources is like ‘building a nest to attract phoenixes’.”

Touqiao Town has a particularly high concentration of medical equipment manufacturers. A large volume of plastic waste from the enterprises used to be burned in an incineration plant alongside household waste. Packs of industrial waste had also piled up in farm fields. Since the beginning of the “Plastic Smart Cities” initiative, the city’s Municipal Urban Management Bureau has been coordinating with relevant local authorities to push enterprises in the three towns to transform their modes of production through education and rectification and elimination. “You can’t find any solid industrial waste in the fields now,” said Leng.

Enterprises are also involved in relevant publicity efforts. They are required to participate in publicity activities related to garbage classification at regular intervals. “We regularly evaluate enterprise performance to check their frequency of engaging in such activities in communities and villages,” said Leng. “While carrying out census and pandemic control work in the towns, we informed local households of policies and regulations on garbage classification and plastic reduction.”

Exploring a Plastic Smart Model

Both Sanya and Yangzhou have made effective explorations on controlling plastic waste pollution and developing a circular economy. They are both encouraging enterprises to promote the circular economy and fulfill their corporate social responsibilities. They have advanced urban-rural waste management and launched publicity and education campaigns to improve the public awareness of “white pollution.” 

What is the best way to synergize the international initiative of “Plastic Smart Cities” with plastic reduction in China to tailor a suitable “Plastic Smart Cities” model for China? Zhang Yimo thinks that from a long-term perspective, it is necessary to provide more support for plastic recycling technology developers and non-plastic alternative materials manufacturers.

Yang Weidong offered two suggestions: First, perform more research at the early stage and design implementation plans with targeted measures including rewards and punishment policies and incentive subsidies; second, promote dialogue between international organizations and local government departments to learn advanced experience from other countries. The international concept of ‘Plastic Smart Cities’ can be totally integrated with China’s ideas about plastic restrictions and ‘Zero Waste Cities’.”

Many grassroots workers like Leng Shan feel that it is important that plastic reduction not weigh too much on regular people’s daily lives. “Instead of burdening people with relevant work, the campaign should offer benefits that attract participation.”

“We should be figuring out how to make the ‘Plastic Smart Cities’ initiative benefit people more directly,” said Yang Weidong. “We should actively carry out dialogues with institutions of higher learning and experts from academia and industry to determine the best ways to make plastic reduction benefit the people.”

“That is the original aspiration and the final goal of the initiative,” he added.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s