SHANGHAI — Luo Qi used to be part of the problem. He would zip around Shanghai on a motorbike delivering some of the 3.3 million containers of takeout food and drinks that people here order every day.

Now, he manages a trash-sorting depot, where he ensures those takeout containers are recycled. 

“Like General Secretary Xi said, ‘Lush mountains and clear waters are invaluable assets like mountains of gold and silver,’ ” said Luo, a 31-year-old migrant worker, quoting President Xi Jinping.

Shanghai is channeling the same zeal that drove its emergence as a financial center into a more prosaic endeavor: garbage management.

This city of more than 24 million people produces more than 10 million tons of garbage every year, but until now there has been no system for minimizing the amount that ends up in landfills or incinerators. The shift is a local response to a bigger waste problem that has led China to ban imports of solid waste from countries including the United States.

Trash sorting — as Luo noted — is an issue close to Xi’s heart.

The president has spoken about the importance of managing China’s voluminous waste so frequently that there’s an official rap music animation to help spread the message. “Recycling is the way to reduce harm and make our home beautiful/ If we sort garbage correctly, it becomes a resource,” it goes

Barely considered during China’s breakneck economic development, environmental issues are emerging as a concern for the ruling Communist Party as citizens voice worries about poor air and water quality.

Thousands of people took to the streets in the central city of Wuhan last month to oppose the construction of a waste-to-energy incineration plant that residents fear will exacerbate environmental problems.

Shanghai has become the first Chinese city to introduce new rules for waste management, with similar initiatives to follow in other major centers, including Beijing.

 Since July 1, residents have been required to sort their garbage into four categories: recyclables, such as paper, plastic, glass, scrap metal and fabric; perishables, such as food waste, flowers and medicinal herbs; hazardous materials, such as batteries, lightbulbs, medicines and paint; and dry or “residual,” anything that is not recyclable, hazardous or perishable.

Trash cans in four colors corresponding to the waste categories now adorn residential compounds and alleys behind supermarkets, restaurants and hotels.

Recycling mascots

There are some difficult rules. Corn kernels and cobs are perishable waste, but the husk is residual waste because it is fibrous. Fish and chicken bones are food waste, but harder pork and beef bones, along with oyster and clam shells, are dry waste. The shell of a hairy crab is perishable, but king crab shells are residual.

One local authority has created playing cards to help people get the hang of sorting — hearts for hazardous waste, diamonds are recyclables — while another has made flash cards for kids. There are even fluffy mascots for each category of trash.

Some users of Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, joke that the garbage-sorting campaign is turning into a weight-loss campaign: People don’t want to sort their takeout containers, so they’ve just stopped eating.

Volunteers staff the trash cans in residential compounds, and municipal inspectors stop by to make sure people are following the rules.

“We are helping people because many of them don’t know how to separate their trash,” said Hu Jinggui, a retiree in a green jacket who was overseeing sorting on a recent day at a compound in northern Shanghai. Residents came up with bags of food waste, plastic containers and even a box of shoes.

Fines and public shaming

The authorities are ready to provide financial incentives to make sure people sort their trash.

Individuals face fines of $7 to $30 for not sorting their trash properly, while penalties for companies can reach $70,000. Repeat offenders could lose points from their social credit score, the system under which Chinese authorities penalize people for behavior they deem anti-social, akin to deducting points from a financial-credit score.

Local media has been full of cautionary tales designed to show the authorities’ determination.

A supermarket was fined $4,400 for mixing paper packaging with food waste. The Ritz-Carlton and Marriott hotels were publicly shamed for continuing to supply newly banned items such as toothbrushes and shoeshine pads.

Others have needed more than fines.

One volunteer, a 55-year-old retired cleaner, was taken to the hospital after being assaulted by a younger woman who didn’t take kindly to her suggestion that she separate her food scraps from her dry waste. The younger woman was given three days’ detention as punishment, according to the Shanghai Daily.

Despite the difficulties, Shanghai authorities are happy with how the first few weeks have gone.

“Considering the gap in garbage sorting between Shanghai and some foreign countries, we can say that our city is well underway to closing the gap, with more effective enforcement of the rules than we actually expected,” said Wei Dong, a member of the Standing Committee of Shanghai People’s Congress and the urban construction and environmental protection committee.

'What kind of trash are you?'

These new rules have created an opportunity for entrepreneurship. People such as Luo, the former delivery man, are responding to orders through apps not for meals, but for trash sorting.

“Our company will provide door-to-door service to collect and throw out garbage,” Luo said in his warehouse on the edge of a housing complex in the Shanghai district of Baoshan.

Luo and his team receive requests through Alipay, the online-payment app developed by Alibaba. He and his crew go to customers’ houses and sort through their trash, taking away everything that is recyclable. 

“I just ordered them on Alipay; it’s very convenient,” said one customer, Feng, who gave only his family name and who was watching while Luo and his cousin, Yang Zhixue, stacked and removed cardboard from the apartment he was renovating.

Luo doesn’t get paid for this — in fact, he paid Feng about $2 for the cardboard. Luo’s earnings come from selling the recyclable material for further use.

Luo manages about 300 people to do this kind of work, serving more than 20 residential compounds. Since the regulations took effect this month, about a dozen people have shown up each day to ask for a job.

The work is tedious but could be rewarding, Luo said. Garbage collectors can expect to earn $700 or $800 a month, but there is the potential to earn as much as $2,000 — a good wage — depending on the value and volume of goods they can recycle.

“People have noticed that we could earn this much money simply being a garbage collector, but they don’t see that we work 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. outside under the sun,” he said.

For now, the new system is the talk of Shanghai. Locals are no longer greeting each other with the customary “Have you eaten?” Instead, they’re asking: “What kind of trash are you?” 

One wit came up with a handy way to remember the rules. If a pig can eat it, it’s food waste. If a pig won’t eat it, it’s residual. If a pig would die after eating it, it’s hazardous waste. And if you can earn money from it to buy more pigs, it’s recyclable.

Liu Yang contributed reporting and Lyric Li contributed research.