Food recycling: waste solutions through city-scale food recycling policy are developed and tested in China
Food waste is a major problem worldwide. It makes up 30-40 per cent of household waste in the Global North and 60-70 per cent in China. Failure to enable householders to sort their waste for recycling, composting or reuse is at the heart of this global environmental challenge around food waste, which is usually disposed of via landfill or incineration, leading to greenhouse gas emissions. City projects that handle significant food waste in environmentally friendly ways, for example conversion to biogas or compost, are rare.
Researchers from the University of Brighton’s Values and Sustainability Research and Enterprise Group have, however, identified the key ways in which residential recycling behaviour is shaped. Professor Marie Harder and Dr Ryan Woodard have worked alongside UK local authorities since 1999, developing empirical evidence to underpin domestic recycling policy. Early research identified that factors such as the frequency of collection and number of waste types recycled are important, and that people-centred approaches, such as household and community level incentive schemes for recycling, can increase participation rates by 10-20 per cent.
Working in collaboration with Fudan University and a Chinese environmental non-governmental organisation and Chinese local government, this theory has been used to develop policy recommendations that have then been incorporated into municipality-wide regulations on household waste in Shanghai, a city with a population approaching 25 million people.
A key challenge for such large cities is identifying which of the many interrelated reasons governing recycling behaviour need to be targeted to encourage residents to sort waste sufficiently well for large-scale, sustained recycling and disposal. The practical application of University of Brighton research into food waste recycling has brought about changes in policy that have had a major impact on Shanghai.
Shanghai Municipality at the forefront of China’s household recycling initiatives
In 2011, Harder began a collaboration with Fudan University (Shanghai), establishing a dual institutional affiliation and partnerships with Chinese researchers. Shanghai Municipality has been at the forefront of China’s household recycling initiatives since 2000, encouraging local pilots for food waste but with minimal success. Capitalising on an opening provided by the municipality’s 2012 Policy for Waste Sorting Pilots, Harder began to work with Ifine, a specialist Chinese non-government organisation whose focus is on mobilising residents to recycle more effectively. A series of increasingly large and complex University of Brighton-Fudan-Ifine projects were developed to identify which behavioural policy interventions might maximise food waste recycling in the city. Ifine focussed on stakeholder relationships and interpersonal interventions, with University of Brighton-Fudan researchers analysing field data.
Through separate published studies, the University of Brighton led work with Fudan University and Ifine which established important facts about motivation in the collective efforts of recycling. For example, providing only information about recycling programmes to residents failed to improve waste sorting, whereas interpersonal interactions with Ifine volunteers, including positive modelling and tailored knowledge, succeeded.
Wider research drawing on worldwide publications led to an understanding of which interventions are best to achieve effective recycling under specified circumstances. The findings identify factors such as knowledge (of a recycling programme), social norms (regarding recycling) and action planning (by residents or other stakeholders), providing a rigorous checklist tool through which any community – not just in China – can be profiled to identify the determinants for local prioritisation to maximise waste recycling.
Recognition and interpersonal interaction trigger successful recycling behaviour
Results in Shanghai revealed that role recognition and interpersonal interaction were the most critical local determinants to trigger successful recycling behaviour. Successful uptake of the food waste programme depended upon:
- using interpersonal delivery of programme information;
- distinguishing different roles (residents, cleaners) from the start;
- having volunteers attend communal recycling bins several hours a day, initially, to make clear to residents in a positive, interactive way that it was their role to sort waste; and
- training cleaners not to assume the roles of residents at any time.
Applying the theory of residential recycling behaviour developed by the University of Brighton led to an increase in food waste recycling to 9,796 tonnes per day at a city level, sustained over the year following policy changes. This is equivalent to capturing 78 per cent of domestic food waste in the metropolis, the highest urban rate globally.
The research also led to waste being diverted into biogas production instead of landfill, reducing emissions reductions greenhouse gas emissions by at least 2,650,000 tonnes CO2-equivalent per year. On top of this, there were improvements in the status of Ifine and other Chinese non-governmental organisations. The studies highlighted the need for local, specialised knowledge and public engagement to complement traditional government implementation and maximise recycling rates. Non-governmental organisations became formally accepted as local authority partners and fully integrated into policy processes. To confirm that the recommendations were practical and scalable, training materials were then produced for stakeholders and trialled in different wards in Shanghai.
A policy brief was submitted to Shanghai Municipality through appropriate channels in 2018. In January 2019, the municipality issued its new compulsory household waste regulations, fundamentally incorporating the concepts of the University of Brighton-Fudan team, with municipality-wide implementation made mandatory for all residents from July 2019. The role of every stakeholder is set out in the regulations, including an emphasis on where interpersonal interaction with residents is needed.
This city-wide change in residential food waste recycling policy in Shanghai produced a sharp and sustained effect on the environment, while long-term partnerships have spread the influence of the University of Brighton-Fudan-Ifine research to other cities in China. In 2019, the team were commissioned to develop recommendations on waste management and community involvement for Hangzhou City.
Marie Harder was able to develop a general prescriptive theory of interventions for residential recycling, initially given in a major presentation in an online conference with 10,000 participants considering ways forward for Beijing’s waste sorting programme. She presents the ideas to the public in an online TED-style talk. In 2021 Marie Harder (also known as Marie Kieran Waxman) was presented with the Magnolia Gold Award by Shanghai, one of only 10 awarded each year to non-Chinese nationals who make significant contributions to the municipality, and was invited to give the formal acceptance speech on behalf of the recipients.