Environment, Governance and public sector management

Classifying garbage for improving well-being in rural People’s Republic of China

The amount of waste produced in the rural areas of many developing Asian countries has increased dramatically over the last 50 years. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) generates the most domestic waste (garbage) globally. Official data show that the quantity of garbage collected and transported in the PRC rose from 25.08 million tons in 1979 to 316.60 million tons in 2021 (MHURD 2022). More strikingly, historically known to generate relatively small amounts of garbage, rural areas are driving the PRC’s “garbage siege” (Zheng et al. 2022). In 2021, the total volume of rural garbage in the PRC reached an alarming 561 million tons (Insight and Info Consulting 2022), while only a relatively small fraction (around 40%–70%) of it was managed properly (Wang and Hao 2020).

The mismanagement of vast quantities of garbage has placed stress on the environment and compromised the quality of life of the Chinese people. It has contaminated water bodies, degraded soil, polluted the air, and contributed to physical and psychological distress (Liu et al. 2020). If left unaddressed, the issue will impede the PRC’s progress toward improving living standards while meeting its ambitious environmental goals.

The gravity of the situation is not lost on the country’s government. It has promulgated policies and funneled resources to promote garbage classification as a critical aspect of waste management, and these initiatives have had some positive effects. The number of prefecture-level cities implementing garbage classification programs has increased more than sixfold, from 46 in 2019 to 297 in 2021. As of 2021, 77% of residential communities in the PRC classified garbage, facilitating the disposal of 514,000 tons of daily domestic waste per day.

Despite significant strides in tackling improper waste management, the PRC still lags behind developed nations. Less than 50% of rural households in the country classify garbage (Wang and Hao 2020), and only 1–2% of gross domestic product (GDP) is allocated to domestic waste management in cities.

In contrast, developed countries on average invest 2%–3% of their GDP in urban domestic waste management, and some countries even invest a lot more. Japan, for instance, spends 3.7% of its GDP, and the government rewards people who recycle and sort their waste with convenient access to credit loans (Yue and Shi 2020). Singapore has invested in state-of-the-art waste management systems to cope with the growing solid waste in the country. It has four waste-to-energy plants that reduce the volume of solid waste by around 90% (MSTT 2020). Almost every rural household classifies garbage in Japan and Singapore, so these countries can serve as exemplars for developing countries in Asia, such as the PRC, that are struggling to manage their waste.

But how readily will people adopt these practices? Will they respond to incentives put in place by policy makers and adhere to regulations? The answers to these questions depend in part on people’s perceptions of the practices. If people view them as beneficial rather than onerous and unimportant, they will be more amenable to classifying garbage, making it easier to entrench garbage classification practices and programs and ultimately improve the environment (Ma and Zhu 2020; Torres-Pereda et al. 2020).

Garbage classification: A pathway to improved well-being

Recent research points to some uplifting evidence. Studies by Qi et al. (2022) and Li et al. (2023) have shown that garbage classification improves rural people’s subjective well-being, making them happier and more satisfied with their lives. Specifically, Li et al. (2023) point to four channels through which classifying garbage can engender these outcomes (Figure 1).

Figure 1: How Garbage Classification Improves Subjective Well-Being
Source: Li et al. (2023).

First, classifying garbage reduces soil, water, and air pollution, contributing to cleanliness in rural areas and improving overall environmental quality. Living in clean towns and villages promotes people’s mental well-being. Second, responsibly disposing of garbage can reduce exposure to pathogens, reducing the incidence of diseases and improving the physical health outcomes of rural residents. Third, garbage classification enables rural residents to recycle and reuse solid waste, such as plastic bags and cartons, reducing their living costs and allowing them to spend more on education, nutrition, and entertainment. Last, by classifying garbage, people help not only themselves but contribute to the overall welfare of their communities. In so doing, they can gain their peers’ respect and appreciation and help build harmonious interpersonal relationships within their communities.

What can be done to promote garbage classification?

The many benefits of classifying garbage, including improvements in subjective well-being, should be widely publicized. To this end, awareness and promotional initiatives could be launched via the Internet, television shows, radio broadcasts, and print media (Li et al. 2023). Mobile advertising may prove particularly helpful given its cost-effectiveness and how easily it can reach large numbers of users.

The government should also consider monetary incentives to increase the uptake of garbage classification and financial penalties for irresponsible garbage disposal. For example, they can offer subsidies to help households purchase designated garbage bins or refundable deposits on plastic, aluminum, and glass containers to motivate people to recycle. The government can also encourage the installation of at-home compost systems to reduce the volume of waste disposed of at municipal sites through subsidized.

The adoption of and attitudes toward garbage classification may differ across regions. Thus, although standardizing policies and initiatives for promoting garbage classification can reduce costs and send a cohesive message, regional characteristics should be considered to optimize localized promotional activity. Educational and promotional activities in the less-developed parts of the PRC, such as the central and western regions of the country, may pay rich dividends quickly, as these regions need to catch up in adopting proper waste management practices.


 Insight and Info Consulting. 2022. China’s Rural Waste Treatment Industry Development Status Analysis and Investment Prospects Research Report (2022-2029).

Li, J., P. Vatsa, and W. Ma. 2023. Small Acts With Big Impacts: Does Garbage Classification Improve Subjective Well-Being in Rural China? Applied Research in Quality of Life 0123456789.

Liu, A., M. Osewe, H. Wang, and H. Xiong. 2020. Rural Residents’ Awareness of Environmental Protection and Waste Classification Behavior in Jiangsu, China: An Empirical Analysis. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 17(23), 1–12.

Ma, W., and Z. Zhu. 2020. Internet Use and Willingness to Participate in Garbage Classification: An Investigation of Chinese Residents. Applied Economics Letters 28(9): 788–793.

Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development (MHURD). 2022. China Urban-Rural Construction Statistical Yearbook. China Statistics Press.

MSTT. 2020. Singapore’s Experience in Waste Sorting – Taking “Zero Waste Country” as the Goal and “3R” Principle as the Core. The Paper.

Qi, W., W. Xu, X. Qi, and M. Sun. 2022. Can Environmental Protection Behavior Enhance Farmers’ Subjective Well‑Being? Journal of Happiness Studies 0123456789.

Torres-Pereda, P., E. Parra-Tapia, M. A. Rodríguez, E. Félix-Arellano, and H. Riojas-Rodríguez. 2020. Impact of an Intervention for Reducing Waste through Educational Strategy: A Mexican Case Study, What Works, and Why? Waste Management 114: 183–195.

Wang, Y., and F. Hao. 2020. Public Perception Matters: Individual Waste Sorting in Chinese Communities. Resources, Conservation and Recycling 159(April), 104860.

Yue, S., and X. Shi. 2020. Analysis of Government Roles in Garbage Classification. IOP Conference Series: Earth and Environmental Science 440(4).

Zheng, D., J. Shen, R. Li, B. Jian, J. Zeng, Y. Mao, X. Zhang, P. Halder, and M. Qu. 2022. Understanding the Key Factors Determining Rural Domestic Waste Treatment Behavior in China: A Meta-Analysis. Environmental Science and Pollution Research,29(8): 11076–11090.

Junpeng Li

About the Author

Junpeng Li is a lecturer at the Business School, Huaiyin Normal University, People’s Republic of China.
Puneet Vatsa

About the Author

Puneet Vatsa is a senior lecturer in economics at the Faculty of Agribusiness and Commerce, Lincoln University, New Zealand.
Wanglin Ma

About the Author

Wanglin Ma is a professor of applied economics at the Department of Global Value Chains and Trade, Faculty of Agribusiness and Commerce, Lincoln University, New Zealand.

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