Art, China and a ‘Great Wall Of Trash’​ #CircularEconomy

Sat 7, 2019 / By John Ashlin

Earlier this autumn, one Friday evening in Beijing; partygoers gathered in a converted factory space and could be seen tossing waste courier cardboard boxes and plastic packaging into a wall-like open cage structure. Whilst some discarded the detritus of previous online purchases, others stood by taking selfies. Throughout the evening, guests literally built a ‘wall-of-rubbish’; creating a crowd-sourced art installation, intended to raise awareness around the growing issue of municipal solid waste.

The event hosted by the architecture and design house ‘Crossboundaries’, at their design studio, kicked-off ‘Plus’; a programme supported by us at the Dutch non-profit ‘Circle Economy’. This forms part of Circle Economy’s mission of accelerating the transition to a circular economy, with China a crucial player. Circle Economy has joined forces with China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation (CBCGDF) – a leading Chinese social organization dedicated to biodiversity conservation and sustainable development – to start promoting Circular Economy in China through innovative impactful education projects targeting young people.

Not long ago, it would have been difficult to imagine; but solid waste has become a hot topic. The debates around ocean plastic, microbeads, Chinese bans on waste importation and plastic more broadly have made headlines and filled social media feeds worldwide. China has mirrored the trend, including this year once Shanghai started implementing strict new policies to raise the amount of municipal waste sorting and recycling. The metropolis took a lead as one of the central government’s initial 46 pilot cities to initiate this new package of measures, causing Chinese social media to erupt with debate. Citizens across Shanghai suddenly had to pay attention to how they sorted their waste; which coloured bin to use, or potentially face penalty or censure.

During the ‘Plus’ event, it was fascinating to get more context around these developments locally, by chatting with experts like Dr Zhou Jinfeng: Secretary-General of CBCGDF and Zhang Miao (Mia); formerly of Greenpeace China and now founder of ‘R-Cubic’ – a platform for research, investigation and knowledge sharing focused on China’s waste management sector. Mia Zhang explained that China had tried getting tough on waste nearly two decades earlier, with a previous tranche of pilot projects being announced, yet subsequently business-as-usual prevailed; with minimal upticks in community waste sorting and the lions-share still being buried or incinerated. Why didn’t the initial set of pilot projects in the early noughties ever gain traction, unlike today? Mia felt the change has been triggered by the increased urgency of the challenge; namely the sheer quantities of waste being generated. At the turn of the millennium, major cities like Beijing were collecting around three million tonnes of municipal solid waste annually. Yet last year the quantity had tripled to over nine million tonnes, another literal wall of trash, which couldn’t be brushed under the carpet or squeezed into our cool party venue.

This time concrete action seems to be happening on the ground, Mia felt that strides have been made, yet according to R-Cubic’s investigations in Shanghai, community waste sorting performance varied quite widely across different localities. Some volunteers who were responsible for supervising residents at the waste sorting points, needed further support and training to guide local citizens. Perhaps this realisation has informed another province in China; Guangdong, where volunteers have been receiving two months of training prior to programme-rollout. To give an example of a driver feeding this growing ‘great wall of trash’; Dr Zhou explained that on one major fast food delivery platform in China, they are handling over ten million orders per day, with all the associated plastic packaging and disposable utensils. To tackle this challenge, Dr Zhou highlighted two case studies: Firstly, the Shanghai municipality is now going to require such platforms to provide utensils only if customers request. Secondly; his foundation has created a ‘Green Meeting Index’ for the hotels and conferencing sector, with Guangdong Province getting-on-board to phase out a range of single-use paraphernalia; like combs and toothbrushes – de rigueur for the industry.

Dr Zhou emphasised that China can learn from Europe – one of the reasons for its partnership with Circle Economy – but this isn’t just a one-way street. As Mia pointed out, China’s foreign waste ban highlighted Europe’s own domestic waste processing infrastructural deficiencies. China on the other hand has the largest recycling industry in the world and has now started investing in local processing plants in Europe, the US and South East Asia. Both experts emphasised that sorting waste at the community level isn’t a silver bullet solution, it must be part of a holistic system redesign; including infrastructure and product design – the latter a focus of CBCGDF, which also organises green design roadshows around the country for enterprises.

Looking more broadly, public-outreach and education are key enablers for circular transition; we need to keep redoubling our efforts in this area, yet also avoid seeming too didactic. The objective of ‘providing for human needs within the boundaries of our planet’, is an inspiring and empowering shared mission. ‘Plus’ seeks to combine fun engaging events with the arts, science and educational outreach projects; as it’s clear from relevant academic literature and concrete projects that such multi-disciplinary approaches are powerful catalysts for change (Perrault and Clark, 2017); (Pröpper, 2017); (Scoffham and Consorte-McCrea, 2018); (Swanson, 2015); (Uitto and Saloranta, 2017). Art helps us grasp the difficult concept of systems thinking and facilitates understanding; enriches and reinforces critical and creative thinking (Sholette, 2016) (Molderez and Ceulemans, 2018) (Hickey-Moody, 2017). Also, artists can reframe seemingly intractable problems; create platforms for community engagement and help us envision better alternative futures. (Beckman, Scott and Wymore, 2018); (Edwards, Collins and Goto, 2016); (Rutten, Van Beveren and Roets, 2018); (Perovich, 2018); (Kim, 2017); (Wood, 2017). For transformative change, we need to pose the question: Just what can we become? (Papenfuss et al., 2019)

Meanwhile back in Beijing; during the after party, the ‘wall of rubbish’ art installation was dismantled, and the waste packaging removed for revalorisation during future Circular Economy education workshops. The first of which starting this month, will be student-designed and led; including two Beijing-based educational institutions: ‘The Moonshot Academy’ and ‘The Migrant Children’s Foundation’. Teenagers from the former institution develop workshops for younger students from the latter, to explore and reframe how the challenge of growing urban waste is in fact an opportunity, with waste a wonderful resource for future material lifecycles.

The intention is for these workshops to develop and roll into 2020, with further related events and innovative workshops focused on other Circular principles including ‘Circular Design’ and ‘Systems Thinking’. On top of all the aforementioned organisations, our thanks go out to our other friends and ‘Plus’ collaborators including ‘Live With Less’, ‘The Bulk House’, Farm to Neighbours Market (F2N Market), I: project space, Huadao Ecovillage, Hans Galliker.

Watch this space for further updates… 🙂

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