Garbage Separation Mania in Shanghai

June 2019 in Shanghai was all about the 扫黑除恶 (“Sweep Black, Eliminate Evil“) campaign, but towards the end of the month, the new big topic became 垃圾分类 (literally: “garbage classification”).

So after years of (semi-successfully) trying to get everyone to stop littering and use the damn garbage cans, the decision has been made to go into full-on complex (Japanese-style?) garbage separation, even at the household level. This has resulted in a number of interesting phenomena.

The New System

Shanghaiist has details in English: Starting [in July], you’ll have to sort your own garbage or face fines in Shanghai.

Here’s the information distributed to my own home:


High-Tech Garbage Cans

Various “neighborhoods” in Shanghai started phasing in the new garbage separation policy a few months ago, but it still feels rushed. Some communities even had “high-tech garbage receptacles” installed in June. These things require a special card to even open. Then if you put the wrong garbage in the wrong can, you could get fined!


For the slightly paranoid, garbage tracking is very scary, considering how easy it would be to go through any individual’s garbage under this new system. (Or just fine people and profit.)

Garbage Separation Memes


Word is that public garbage cans on the street will soon be disappearing. Hence this “fashion statement.”


A classification system so complicated, you have to look stuff up online just to throw something away?? (There should be an app for that.)


Don’t throw garbage in the wrong can… people are watching. (Yes, this is a joke.)

Final Thoughts

Sure, it’s a good thing to be more responsible about dealing with garbage as a society, especially in a society as populous as this one. It does feel an awful lot like people are being forced to run before the can walk, though. If this doesn’t work, the result is going to be widespread littering all over the city! But still, this initiative is going to happen because it’s being pushed through by the will of the government. It’ll be interesting to see how this turns out!


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. I wonder if they’ll subsequently really recycle and properly dispose of the garbage, or just ship it off all together to Vietnam, Malaysia or Senegal. It’s also kinda fascinating to see how the U.S. is reacting/trying to adjust after losing their biggest dumping ground. I wonder if Japan ships anything out? There, housewives will wash the milk cartons, fold them up and stack them before putting it out. Kinda hard to see that vision here.

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