Early Wednesday morning, Yao Xiaoguang (pseudonym) began to collect plastic bottles, kitchen waste and used batteries from dustbins in a residential community in Beijing's Chaoyang district.
The 48-year-old woman has two hours to sort the waste every morning, before the smell becomes unbearable as temperatures rise.
Yao is one of the 20,000 "garbage sorting instructors" that has worked in around 3,700 Beijing residential communities since the role was officially established in the capital in 2010.
Paid around 600 yuan () per month, the instructors are meant to help residents manage household waste, especially kitchen waste, which accounts for 60 percent of household waste but is rarely sorted, the Beijing Daily reported on May 25.
However, Yao said she is more of a "sorter" than an "instructor," as her job mainly involves cleaning up and sorting the waste herself as she found it formidably hard to persuade residents, who she rarely meets, to sort waste into the correct dustbins themselves.
Though China has been promoting garbage sorting since 2000, progress has been less than satisfying, said experts.
Why, how to and what for
"It will still take the efforts of generations to form the habit of sorting household waste," Liu Jianguo, a professor at the School of Environment at Tsinghua University, told the Global Times Wednesday.
Unlike bad habits that can kill such as drunk driving or running a red light, leaving garbage unsorted causes invisible damage, and the cost of dealing with it is not shouldered by individuals, Liu said.
However, if trash is not sorted properly, waste cannot be fully reused or recycled, and the disposal process is harder, he noted.
Several attempts to promote garbage sorting have been introduced in recent decades. For instance, Shanghai began sorting "organic" and "inorganic" garbage in 1995, and then started classifying garbage into "glass," "hazardous waste," "recyclable waste" and "other waste" in 2008.
In 2011, Shanghai redesigned its public dustbins to contain either "kitchen garbage" or "other garbage" in an attempt to get locals to separate wet and dry waste themselves.
However, a 2015 report released by the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences showed that only 6.5 percent of the locals surveyed said they "fully sort out garbage" while 32 percent said they never did any kind of sorting.
In March, China released a plan to enforce garbage sorting in 46 cities, making it mandatory for government organizations and enterprises to sort their waste.
According to the plan, hazardous waste such as batteries and drugs, perishable rubbish such as meat and fruit, as well as recyclable materials, must all be sorted. The plan also vowed to increase the household garbage recycling rate to 35 percent by the end of 2020 in the 46 cities.
"The plan has set a bottom line for administrative bodies, which can no longer run away from their duties, or they will be held accountable," Mao Da, the founder of the China Zero Waste Alliance, a platform that promotes alternatives to landfills and incineration, told the Global Times Wednesday.
Restrictions and punishments could be instituted for business or individuals which do not sort waste, such as suspending garbage removal or charging expensive fees to take away unsorted waste.
In severe cases, detentions could be handed out to those who repeatedly defy the sorting decree and cause considerable damage, Liu suggested.
From 90 percent to 0
According to the Xinhua News Agency, China's 246 big- and medium-sized cities produced 185.64 million tons of household garbage in 2015, citing a report released in November 2016.
Currently, around 60 percent of household waste is buried and 30 percent is burned, said Mao.
Besides the impact on the environment and human health that burning or burying unsorted garbage has, the two approaches are not sustainable.
Beijing will have no more landfill space within the next five years, the China News Service reported on May 4. Meanwhile, incineration plants have long been a source of controversy in China, with residents in Hunan, Guangdong and Zhejiang provinces taking to the streets to protest against plans to build them nearby.
Mao noted that cleaner disposal practices, such as recycling, could potentially deal with as much as 70 percent of garbage within the next ten years.
Reducing the use of landfills and incinerators to zero will need the cooperation of businesses, especially in product design, said Mao.
For instance, in 2016, PepsiCo launched a 2025 Sustainability Agenda, in which the company hopes 100 percent of its packaging will be recoverable or recyclable by 2025.