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The Volunteers Fighting to Keep China’s Beaches, Forests and Mountains Clean

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Battling heat, apathy and inclement weather, over 260,000 volunteers across China swarmed the beaches, hills, deserts and landmarks in their hometowns on one day last month. Their mission: to clean up the mountains of unmanaged trash that accumulate yearly outside of China’s waste system.

China was one of 180 countries to officially participate in this year’s World Cleanup Day in September, which was first founded by Let’s Do It Foundation from Estonia as a volunteer-run, global waste cleanup operation. This year volunteers hailed from 158 cities across China, spanning from Xinjiang in the west to southeastern Hainan.

Image: Lotus Hill team in Luquan District, Shijiazhuang in Hebei province

In China, waste management systems have significantly lagged behind the country’s rapid urbanization. Once responsible for importing nearly half of the planet’s plastic recyclables, China currently has the most mismanaged plastic waste worldwide.

Even cities that seemingly have recycling programs in place are often not enforcing them, but rather combining and dumping trash in city-adjacent landfills. This has resulted in mountains of mixed trash — and missed opportunities — building up at the end of urban waste pipelines.

Volunteer Xi Chao from Xi’an feels that for many Chinese, the current “garbage classifications are controversial” and confusing. By this, she refers to the four waste sorting categories — “dry,” “wet,” recyclable, and hazardous waste — that caused an uproar upon their implementation in cities like Shanghai earlier this year.

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“I hope that they unify the national standard with the rest of the world,” she says, “so that wherever you go, you won’t be confused when standing in front of the trashcan, and can sort your trash quickly.”

Trash build-up is even more dire in places where waste streams are nonexistent, such as scenic areas and landmarks. “I’ve followed a literal trail of trash down a mountain before when there was no actual trail,” says Kyle Obermann, a 27-year-old conservation photographer who volunteered for the cleanup efforts in Chengdu. “Many visitors to these places are not aware of any ‘Leave No Trace’ principles.”

Niu Yun, an organizer based in Shanghai, says that World Cleanup Day China mobilizes thousands of organizations specifically to target this “outlier garbage,” referring to places where trash hasn’t entered formal waste channels and/or is discarded in nature.

Volunteers clean up trash on a beach in Sanya, Hainan

“We know that we’re limited by our two hands,” Niu told Shanghai Youth News (link in Chinese) during a cleanup event coinciding with Earth Day this year. “The goal here is not to eliminate garbage altogether, but rather to make people aware of the seriousness of the problem.”

According to the World Bank’s 2018 report, humans generate over 2 billion tons of municipal solid waste globally each year. The most populous nation in the world, China is also the world’s leading generator of solid waste, and is projected to double the US’s output by 2030, according to an earlier report in 2012.

When asked what types of trash they encountered during the cleanup, almost every volunteer cited cigarette butts as one of the most common finds. (This comes as little surprise in a country where an estimated 300 million citizens smoke, and regulation is lax to nonexistent.)

Among the fastest growing types of trash, the explosion of take-out services in China has resulted in tremendous amounts of packaging waste — an estimated 1.6 million tons of it in 2017. And though informal recyclers and independent organizations have tried tackling China’s plastic problem in their own ways, plastic still clogs China’s landfills and, when inevitably mismanaged, risks choking its waterways.

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Waste from the Yangtze River is the largest single contributor to worldwide ocean pollution, dumping as much as 1.5 million metric tons of plastic into the Yellow Sea. (China is also home to the third and fourth most polluting rivers worldwide, the Yellow and Hai rivers.) As World Cleanup Day coincides with International Coastal Clean-Up Day (ICC) and River Cleanup Day, the cleanup also mobilized a dedicated network of people to target trash build-up along and within China’s waterways.

Perhaps the most dangerous factor in China’s trash problem, however, is indifference. 31-year-old Xi began picking up trash on her own in 2012 and was amazed by the difference it made to her immediate surroundings. Shocked by how few of her fellow citizens seem to care, she believes this is because people most likely don’t want to deal with things outside themselves.

“Some people think that [waste management] should be the government’s problem,” says Xi. “Like, ‘As long as it isn’t caused by me personally, I’m not responsible.’

“So they continue to be indifferent, and the situation deteriorates.”

Ren Zhuoxin, a 46-year-old volunteer from Liaoning province, sees a generational divide that shapes attitudes towards trash. “[I think] the majority of people born through the ‘00s are aware of the harm garbage is causing, but are less concerned about waste reduction and disposal because they feel there is nothing they can do about it.” She adds that people over 50, especially in rural areas, generally don’t pay attention to these habits at all, due to a lack of education and a reluctance to change.

Volunteers pick up trash in Urumqi, Xinjiang

Niu says that while volunteers are offered no incentives to participate, many are already involved in environmental activism, education, or in outdoor volunteer groups. (World Cleanup Day also recruited a host of Chinese and Chinese-American celebrities such as MC Jin, and in reference to China’s 70th anniversary, encouraged people to “give back” to their motherland and “show the world the environmental protection of Chinese citizens.”)

World Clean-Up celebrities Weibo

Celebrity endorsements for World Cleanup Day (Images: Weibo)

But Niu thinks that the urgency of trash build-up is what’s encouraging people to volunteer the most. “I really think people are volunteering because this problem is becoming more visible in the public eye,” she observes, “the fact that human-generated waste is really piling up, especially in the ocean.”

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It’s this feeling of “now or never” that motivated a team of more than 300 people braving Typhoon Tapah to take part in a trash pick-up competition, resulting in over a ton of garbage being picked up in just one hour.

Luo Qingsong, a teacher in Henan province, recalls seeing entire villages besieged by trash throughout his ten years of community volunteering. But he is hopeful that awareness about recycling and waste is increasing. “The government, NGOs, and the media have really stepped up their efforts,” he says. “I think people are increasingly aware of the dangers of improper disposal, and increasingly concerned about their own trash production.” And with the state of worldwide waste being what it is, this concern couldn’t be more timely.

Header image: Volunteers clean during Typhoon Tapah in Shanghai (Photo: Zhang Han)

Mayura Jain
    Mayura Jain is a Shanghai-based writer, editor, illustrator and designer originally from Los Angeles. Before joining RADII as Life Editor, she worked for City Weekend Shanghai and Sixth Tone as both an editor and graphic designer. In her spare time she frequents art exhibitions, fosters cats, and chows on unhealthy vegetarian food.