Interest and ardor ensure garbage-sorting success

Wang Yong
With the right combination of selfless curiosity and active altruism, great results are possible. This goes for garbage sorting as well as our journey toward happiness.
Wang Yong

One year has passed since Shanghai started garbage sorting. Despite initial inconvenience to some residents who had a hard time telling one type of waste from another, the city has done well on the whole, as evidenced in part by the public's enhanced capacity for more accurate classification.

Official research released on Thursday shows that more than 90 percent of the city’s residential communities now classify garbage correctly, in contrast to only 15 percent about a year ago. The progress comes from public zeal to participate as well as solid communal coordination. Indeed, self-initiated and self-inspired individuals are an immense boon to any communal enterprise.

To see how earnest ordinary people were in participation, one can check the frequency of their visits to a leading local online platform offering professional advice regarding waste management. Municipal greenery and sanitation authorities said yesterday that the platform had received more than 29 million visits over the past year, mostly from people seeking answers about how to classify waste.

For example, the term niunaihe (milk carton) generated over 300,000 searches, by far the most. Many people were at a loss as to what kind of waste a milk carton is considered. The official answer: recyclable. Next was suliaodai (plastic bag), which attracted over 280,000 hits. A plastic bag is not as recyclable as a milk carton; it’s therefore a kind of dry waste. And next came the terms jidanke (chicken eggshell) and yumibang (corn cob). Both belong to wet garbage (household food waste).

At this writing, I am still wondering why an eggshell – often dried soon after exposure in the air – enters as wet waste. Despite being puzzled here and there, I have discovered what the philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) refers to as “a friendly interest” in impersonal things, as I, like many fellow citizens, keep studying the characters of commodities and the categories to which they belong after they have exhausted their life and become waste.

This friendly interest in things, and in persons for that matter, reflects an expansive attitude toward the world on the part of an individual who is ready to diminish preoccupation with oneself and indifference to the environment. When this friendly interest in persons and things goes hand in hand with a devotion to constructive work (like garbage sorting), one escapes from an “encased self” described by Russell and experiences happiness derived from what he calls “an enlargement of the mind and heart.”

It so happened that I finished reading Russell’s book “The Conquest of Happiness” a few days ago, around the time the city was celebrating the first anniversary of the enactment of waste classification rules. It should be proper to put Shanghai’s practice of garbage sorting into perspective by looking at what Russell has to say about happiness. Though written a long time ago, this classic treatise remains relevant today for its careful analysis of what causes the modern man to be unhappy and its candid advice on how to acquire a happier life. Besides being a philosopher, Russell was a mathematician, a logician and a Nobel laureate in literature.

I would say the effort made by every individual member of our city to separate garbage as efficiently as possible amounts to nothing less than the fundamental source of happiness that Russell recommends. Trivial as it seems, the daily job of dumping different waste into different bins with diligence and patience reflects an individual's ability to endure or even enjoy a monotonous life of doing good without seeking an emphatic response or a possessive power.

The city’s garbage-sorting effort would be undervalued if it were regarded only as a technical endeavor to make garbage processing more efficient. Sure, waste treatment has become more efficient after, say, wet garbage is separated from dry garbage. But no less important is perhaps an enlarged mind and heart of most individuals who have gradually cultivated a new habit, or rather acquired a new ability to treat neighbors and nature more friendly.

“Fundamental happiness depends more than anything else upon what may be called a friendly interest in persons and things,” says Russell.

A friendly interest in persons, he explains, is a form of “affectionateness” that likes to observe people and finds pleasure in their individual traits. “The person whose attitude toward others is genuinely of this kind will be a source of happiness and a recipient of reciprocal kindness,” he explains.

No wonder the old janitor responsible for garbage collecting in our neighborhood commands our respect. Despite physical fatigue from strenuous work, she greets everyone with a broad grin. She works more than 10 hours a day with no weekends. And in case anyone doesn’t know how to sort some things correctly, she wastes no time in taking the task into her own hand. She would say with a smile of understanding: “You are busy, so let me do it!” 

Certainly we do sorting on our own most of the time, but her considerate spirit radiates, enlightening me and many others as we learn to give affection without seeking an applause. Similar cases abound in other communities where volunteers and residents help each other out.

In the same vein, a friendly interest in things, like disposal of waste, endears us to the environment in which we live and prevents us from treating nature as a prey. Before the city carried out the waste classification rules, many people threw mixed garbage away without thinking about possible troubles for collectors or processors; much less for the environment. Now, with a little nudge from the regulations, many have diminished their indifference to the environment.

Russell writes: “An interest in impersonal things, though perhaps less valuable as an ingredient in everyday happiness than a friendly attitude towards our fellow creatures, is nevertheless very important.” Here Russell’s rationality is clear: The world is vast and man is only part of it. Without a friendly interest in things beyond personal circumstances, one misses what life has to offer as a whole. Interest in and love of nature can give a man poise and calm he can hardly enjoy if he is encased in self.

Writing with common sense, lucidity and open-mindedness, Russell runs the gamut from fear to fatigue in diagnosing the causes of unhappiness of the modern man. One root cause, he explains, is too much emphasis on competitive success as the main source of happiness.

“I do not deny that the feeling of success makes it easier to enjoy life … Nor do I deny that money, up to a certain point, is very capable of increasing happiness; beyond that point, I do not think it does so,” he concludes. “What I do maintain is that success is only one ingredient in happiness, and is too dearly purchased if all the other ingredients have been sacrificed to obtain it.”

Indispensable to the happiness of most men are simple things, he says, such as food and shelter, health, love and respect of one’s own herd. Pity the typical modern man often desires to get more money with a view to ostentation, splendor and the outshining of those who have hitherto been his equals. This philosophy of life as a contest consequently causes anxiety and nervous fatigue that deprives one of a quiet life. 

“A happy life must be to a great extent a quiet life, for it is in this atmosphere of quiet that true joy can live,” he says.

With a capacity to endure a quiet life, one derives pleasure not from an excessively competitive mindset, but from giving affection that's not so exciting to the outward eye. The success of a year’s garbage sorting in our city demonstrates not only our technical ability to improve material classification, but also our collective sense and sensibility for choosing a fundamentally happy life.

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