Not all that long ago, China recycled for the world. Now it’s trying to tackle its own trash.

With a population of 1.4 billion and no formal recycling system, the country generates mountains of trash daily. But for the first time, from the start of July, Shanghai residents will be required to sort their waste, as one of the country’s first recycling programmes gets underway.

Up until 2018, China made good business from accepting other countries’ waste for processing. Now, it has closed its doors to those imports and is looking to introduce recycling across its cities, as concern about its domestic trash heap grows.

Image: Statista

After decades of rapid industrialization and urbanization, waste disposal is becoming a major headache for municipal authorities.

The Chinese government previously announced it wants 46 of its cities to start sorting their waste and reach a recycling rate of at least 35% by 2020. A number of cities – including Shanghai – have made faltering attempts to introduce recycling initiatives in the past.

But Shanghai’s new scheme is strict: residents can only throw out their trash between certain hours, in public bins without bags, and food waste must be disposed of without packaging. Those who fail to comply face charges of ¥200 ($30). If communities don’t abide by the regulations, trash collectors must stop clearing their waste.

Image: The World Bank

A region drowning in trash

The East Asia and Pacific region generated 468 million tonnes of waste in 2016, according to the World Bank. Of this, just under half came from China, which is home to 61% of the region’s population.

As with many other countries in the region, China relies heavily on large armies of waste pickers. In its urban centres alone, an estimated 3.3 million to 5.6 million people are involved in unofficial urban recycling.

With the world’s waste generation set to outpace population growth by more than double in the run-up to 2050, China will offer a case study in how a country can introduce a formal recycling scheme from scratch.