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A Tale of Two Recycling Initiatives: State, Society and Waste Management in St Petersburg and Shanghai

Article by Dr Catherine Owen

December 4, 2019

A Tale of Two Recycling Initiatives: State, Society and Waste Management in St Petersburg and Shanghai

Its 7pm on a summery evening in a typical Shanghai housing estate, and the public courtyards are bustling with people.  Residents of all ages descend from their apartments carrying bags of rubbish, neatly sorted into different categories, in order to throw it into the brightly decorated public recycling bins. Since the new regulations came into force in July 2018, every evening at twilight the estate comes alive with the sounds of chatter as the recycling bins are unlocked and made available for people to use. Volunteers wearing green overalls guide their fellow residents to the correct bins, the local residents’ committee members who manage residential life mingle with citizens and oversee the volunteers, enthusiastic children explain the new waste categories to struggling family members, and at the back of the bins, recycling managers sort through residents’ incorrectly sorted waste. The whole community has been mobilised to carry out these new regulations.

Volunteers and residents gather to collect recyclable waste in St Petersburg

Seven thousand kilometres to the other side of the Eurasian continent, a very different approach to recycling is in operation. On the first Saturday of every month, environmental activists in the Russian city of St Petersburg organise recycling collections on a public driveway or street corner in each of the city’s 18 districts. Hardy volunteers hold large plastic bags where concerned citizens can bring the plastic bottles, polystyrene, Tetrapaks, and other recyclables they have been collecting over the previous four weeks. Boxes for old CDs, un-wanted medicines and plastic bottle tops are laid out on park benches. Some people set up tables nearby selling crafts made out of recycled materials. When the collection period has finished, the volunteers ensure that the recycling is collected by local companies for re-processing. These meet-ups, steadily increasing in popularity since their inception seven years ago, are co-ordinated by a local NGO, staffed entirely by volunteers, and take place every month throughout the year – even in the freezing, snowy months of January and February. The state is nowhere to be seen.

Shanghai and St Petersburg make an interesting choice of city for a comparative exploration of recycling initiatives and the practices of citizen participation they generate. Both are the ‘second cities’ of their respective countries, are relatively wealthy and internationalised, and belong to political systems broadly characterised as authoritarian. Both have a huge problem with waste. St Petersburg, with a population of nearly 5.5 million, produces approximately 1.8 million tonnes of household waste per year. Shanghai’s 24 million residents produce over 9 million tonnes per year. Thus, the average St Petersburger produces 0.32 tonnes of waste a year, while the average Shanghaiese produces 0.37. In St Petersburg, the vast majority of this is sent to landfill; until very recently this was also the case in Shanghai.[1]

Both Russian and Chinese governments recognise that waste management is a growing problem and, in the last year, have developed policy initiatives to deal with it. These initiatives, however, could not be more different. Following calls by Chinese President Xi Jinping for recycling to become part of a ‘fashionable new lifestyle’, recycling facilities are rapidly being rolled out across the country. 46 cities are expected to have established a comprehensive recycling system by 2020, with all cities expected to do so by 2025. Shanghai has trailblazed recycling, becoming the first to enforce city-wide regulations: recycling facilities exist in every estate, many of which are overseen by CCTV cameras and/or a team of volunteers, and bins for separated waste are dotted along the streets. Failure to recycle correctly in Shanghai is now punishable by a fine. Following initial confusion and scepticism regarding the new regulations – spawning viral memes in the Chinese internet asking ‘what type of rubbish are you?’ – public behaviour appears to be changing.[2] The amount of recyclable materials collected in the first three months following the introduction of the new regulations was five times the amount collected during the same period in the previous year. [3]

An oblique sign with the words ‘Don’t you care?’, possibly commissioned by the government, but no one could say for sure

In Russia, the national-level project ‘Ecology’ has promised to transform Russia’s waste management system by 2024, increasing recycling rates from their current 7 per cent to an ambitious 60 per cent.[4] These new regulations have been rolled out across the regions since 1 January 2019 and have required a single ‘regional operator’, selected by the regional governor following a competitive tender, to assume responsibility for the entire waste management process in each region – from collection to sorting and landfill – at a cost of 120 roubles per month to residents.[5] However, St Petersburg constitutes one of three cities that are exempt from the reforms, and it recently emerged that they would not be implemented until 2021 at the earliest, due to fears of social unrest.[6] Currently, citizens in St Petersburg have three options to recycle their waste: collect rubbish over the period of one month and take it to the self-organised meet-ups; drive to the few recycling points on the edge of the city; or pay 400 roubles to a small business to collect their waste and recycle it on their behalf.

Therefore, unlike the rapidly transforming situation in China, residents across Russia are still not required to change their behaviour, since all waste sorting is to be done by the regional operator. And, while recycling in China is being touted[7] as a lucrative business opportunity that could create millions of new jobs, conflict has broken out in Russian regions where half of tariffs remain unpaid, rubbish is left rotting on the street, and regional operators are going bankrupt.[8]  While officials argue that Russian citizens are not yet ‘ready’ to start recycling, independent polls tell a different story. Most citizens would be quite happy to recycle their rubbish if there were facilities nearby.[9] 

In St Petersburg, people who recycle tend to describe themselves as environmentalists or as activists. Many are also trying to cut down on meat, buy more items second hand, adopt other environmentally friendly behaviours, and influence the behaviour of friends and family. They are often also strident critics of the Putin regime. But rather than starting with an initial concern about the environment which lead to frustration with government inaction, for most it is the other way round: critical attitudes towards the regime had brought them to environmental issues. Being an environmentalist is one way in which people can show opposition to Putin.

People at the recycling station in Parnas, St Petersburg, work out which bin in which to throw their recycling.

This mentality is amplified in the small business owners who operate local recycling facilities. One explains, “I am basically an environmentally crazy person, an environmentalist. For about 13 years worked in Greenpeace until… it became clear that Greenpeace was working with the government. And it makes no sense to work with the government, it’s all just talk.” Another stated, “There is a myth that Russia is not ready to recycle. It is not true. Everyone is ready. But it’s convenient for the authorities to say that we’re not ready. If you come and ask the local administration to recycling containers installed, they will say no. Because everything is connected with the state and the administration; there, people sit in the warm and don’t want to move or change the system.” Thanks to government inaction, people who want to recycle must have in-depth knowledge about the numerous different types of plastic and must be able to find out for themselves how to recycle their waste.  One of the city’s main collection points for recyclables is on the edge of town, about an hour from the city centre by public transport and contains eight different sorting categories. One volunteer with the city’s recycling NGO explained, “You need a lot of motivation to recycle in St Petersburg. A lot of my friends are surprised to hear I’m a volunteer because they find it complicated to maintain an ecological lifestyle in Russia.”

For St Petersburg’s citizens who do not currently recycle, many simply don’t trust the government with the recycling process. “We don’t know anything about what happens with the separated waste. I think that after the work, the company just takes the separated garbage and mixes it with the other waste and leaves it in the landfill.” Some were also sceptical that the Shanghai approach of fining residents for non-compliance would achieve behavioural change in St Petersburg: “All fines will be collected by the government. They will use it as some kind of trick. And then the people will just be thinking about and arguing about the fine, not thinking about sorting their rubbish.”

A mural painted by volunteers in one of Shanghai’s housing estates.

In Shanghai, residents’ views could not be more different: rather than hindering the development of recycling in the city, the local Party-state was seen as paramount to successful implementation. According to a local residents’ committee member, “After all, in China this is driven by the government and it’s compulsory. Right now, the Shanghai Municipal Government is promoting it. It is entirely the Party and the government. Party building is taking the lead.” On the role of local Communist party cadres in the recycling process, another stated, “Party members took the lead in propaganda, took the lead in sorting their waste, and took the lead to volunteer. We ask the party members in our community to stand up.”  

At the level of the housing estate in Shanghai, citizens can do more than simply put their rubbish in the recycling bins every evening. Teams of volunteers are recruited in each district to assist struggling residents. One volunteer, an older lady in her 60s sitting by the recycling bins in one housing estate, stated, “We come here 365 days a year, in the heat, in the snow, and in the rain. At New Year, we are still on duty… Yes, we are proud of being volunteers.” Social organisations are frequently invited onto the estates to run workshops, quizzes and other training or themed social events for residents. One resident explained, “This is a response call. Everyone should do something for the country for environmental protection. Yes, I feel obligated. It’s your duty if you live in this place. Well, we’re all living here together and if I make it decent, everyone really feels more comfortable.”

A volunteer and her friends catch up with each other while waiting for their neighbours to bring their recycling.

How can the approach to a single public policy elicit two such different conceptions of citizen engagement? The Russian regulations require individuals to take no action since the responsibility for waste separation is managed by regional authorities. In China, a huge government campaign is enforcing comprehensive societal behavioural change. In St Petersburg, those wishing to engage in recycling processes must do so through the voluntary and private sectors – and expose themselves to a grassroots anti-regime politics. In Shanghai, engagement consists of activating your Party membership, becoming a volunteer or participating in the additional programme of events organised by local residents’ committees and NGOs. In short, the Russian approach disengages the majority of the population while cementing the politics of a kernel of activists; the Chinese approach breeds mass conformity and consent.

The roots of these differences can be traced to four aspects of governance in which Russia and China differ substantially: the structure of political power, the management of the regional economy, levels of public trust in political institutions and the approach to land use. On the first, Russia, typically characterised as a ‘competitive authoritarian’ regime, allows space for limited levels of autonomous activity, while in China’s ‘hegemonic authoritarian’ regime, this space is much smaller and social control by the Communist Party is much greater. In terms of economy, Russian regional public finances have been characterised by fiscal austerity and recentralisation in recent years, while China’s sub-national units have pursued decentralisation, have substantial freedom to experiment with economic strategy and consequently have more finances at their disposal. Thirdly, public trust in the actors and institutions associated with recycling is a vital prerequisite for citizen compliance with the regulations; however, in Russia, citizens are deeply mistrustful of the authorities and levels of public trust are low, while public opinion polls in China consistently reveal high levels of trust in local authorities. And finally, Russia’s vast territory has meant that people have traditionally felt they need not worry about sending waste to landfill in a remote region, while China’s densely populated territory has not permitted this ‘luxury’.

Most of these kinds of distinctions in governance are usually made at the macro level, through the comparative analysis of elite politics, regional-level economic policy or survey data; less is known about how different types of authoritarian governance shape the everyday experiences of public policy and the kinds of orientations towards state power they foster in their citizens. In the case of recycling, poor governmental policy decisions are politicising the issue and creating fertile ground for social conflict in Russia, while in China it is being used to engage citizens more deeply with the local state. It demonstrates that even within the single regime category of ‘authoritarianism’, local experiences of governance and state power can be remarkably different.


All photos by the author

Cover image: Recycling facilities in one of Shanghai’s housing estates



[1] Novye Izvestia, Maybe not spill: ‘Red Bor become an eco-bomb for St. Petersburg, March 2019, https://newizv.ru/news/city/27-03-2019/avos-ne-prolietsya-krasnyy-bor-stal-eko-bomboy-dlya-peterburga

[2]  Echo Huang, “What kind of rubbish are you?”: China’s first serious trash-sorting is driving Shanghai crazy, Quartz, July2019, https://qz.com/1659132/shanghai-is-giving-japanese-style-trash-sorting-a-try/

[3] Alice Yen, Shanghai recycling scheme slips up on 9,000 tonnes of wet water churned out each day, South China Morning Post, November 2019, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/society/article/3035995/shanghai-celebrates-its-war-rubbish-slips-9000-tonnes-waste-it

[4] Ministry of Natural Resources of Russia, Areas of Work: Directions of work of the Ministry of Natural Resources of Russia, 2019, http://www.mnr.gov.ru/activity/directions/natsionalnyy_proekt_ekologiya/

[5] Dmitry Sarkisov, “In the 90s, huge landfills managed by bandits appeared”: The garbage reform has begun in Russia. What will she change?, Lenta.ru, February 2019, https://lenta.ru/articles/2019/02/26/musor/

[6] The Moscow Times, St Petersburg Won’t See Citywide Recycling Until 2021, November 2019, https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2019/11/20/st-petersburg-wont-see-citywide-recycling-until-2021-a68250

[7] Ben Halder, A Plastic Recycling Revolution is Brewing … In China, The Daily Dose, Ozy, April 2019, https://www.ozy.com/acumen/a-plastic-recycling-revolution-is-brewing-in-china/93680/

[8] The Moscow Times, Activists Send Trash Parcels to Russian Deputies in Protest, January 2019, https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2019/01/21/activists-send-trash-parcels-russian-deputies-protest-a64208

[9] Ksenia Agapeeva, From Opinions to Understanding – Press Releases: “Garbage Reform”, Levada.ru, May 2019, https://www.levada.ru/2019/05/15/musornaya-reforma/

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