“What kind of trash are you?”

On July 1st, Shanghai became the first city in China to enforce a compulsory trash separation system. Previously there were separate containers and bins on the street for recyclable and not recyclable waste, but most people randomly threw things into either one of them without checking which should be the correct one. Also, trash collectors emptied both receptacles in the same container, so it didn’t make much sense anyway. The only types of trash that were truly separated were plastic bottles and paper/carton, because those can be sold for money. But now, with the new regulation in Shanghai, things will change. Anyone not separating their trash properly will get a fine! Also, trash can only be thrown at certain times.

The Chinese internet started commenting on the new trash sorting regulation a couple of weeks ago, as many Shanghainese complained that the system seemed too complicated and that the allocated times were not convenient to many young people living alone (especially the ones working 996, although to be fair those probably don’t have much trash at home as they basically live in the office). The system divides trash in four categories: recyclable, hazardous, household and residual. Recyclable and hazardous are quite clear; the problem comes with household and residual and the fact that in Chinese these two categories are called “wet waste” and “dry waste”, but it doesn’t have anything to do with the wetness or dryness of the specific piece of trash so people were quite confused (“Why is a wet wipe “dry trash” and pet food is “wet trash”?). To add to the confusion, it seems that some sorting guides (yes, there are sorting guides, and apps, and even services you can book to separate the trash for you) gave mistaken information, so some netizens were half joking, half complaining, that separating the trash was going to take too much time because you even needed to separate the flesh from the shell of uneaten seafood:

This turned out to be incorrect. It says the shell and head go to “dry waste” and the rest to “wet waste”, but in fact everything has to go to “wet waste” aka household waste.


If the categories were called “household waste” and “residual waste”, like in English, everything would be much easier! Everything food related is household/wet and the rest of the things are residual/dry: tissues, diapers, cigarette butts, dirty plastic bags, etc. But someone already thought of a way to make everybody remember and sort the trash correctly: If it’s something a pig can eat, it’s “wet waste”; if it’s something a pig wouldn’t want to eat, it’s “dry waste”; if it’s something that would kill the pig that ate it, it’s “hazardous”; and if it’s something you can sell and (use the money to) buy a pig, it’s “recyclable”.


One meme that was widely shared was this picture of a man using his laptop on top of a trash bin (supposedly to search which category some trash belongs to):

“Let’s see what kind of trash you are”.


Another one that was all over WeChat was this screenshot of a conversation in which someone swears their classmate moved back to Jiangsu province because he/she didn’t want to sort the trash.


“What kind of trash are you? (你是什么垃圾?)” is one of the most popular sentences related to this new waste sorting system as allegedly that’s what you are asked when you go to throw your trash. Because the regulation just started, many compounds hired volunteers to be in charge of the trash containers and ensure that people throw each thing into the correct bin. These volunteers are all retired people, mostly grannies, and when you go they ask, literally, “What kind of trash are you?” i.e. what kind of trash are you bringing.


Some people already put a lot of effort into separating their trash and were so proud of themselves that they posted their magnum opus for everybody to see:

If you really needed to separate everything like this, then it would indeed take a long time.


It’s good that China is finally going to enforce trash sorting, even if it’s decades after other countries. However, I think it would be even more important to regulate the crazy amount of packaging that is used in supermarkets and delivery services. The other day I ordered some things on an online supermarket and they sent my order in two big boxes. One of them contained only one bag of liquid detergent and the rest were small plastic bags filled with air!!! I was so mad when I saw it that I complained to the customer service (who probably thought I was nuts, since there is precisely zero awareness about this problem in China). It is now known that most recyclable plastic, for example, does not get recycled at all because it’s too costly, so it would be better to educate the population on this and implement systems to reuse things like boxes and those same air bags I mentioned before, and encourage stores to offer products in bulk or fine those who use too much packaging (the other day I saw plastic-wrapped bananas, for god’s sake). But one step at a time! For the moment, it seems Suzhou will start soon too with the trash sorting. After hearing all about Shanghai’s experience, I guess everybody will be well prepared!