Abstract Household and municipal solid waste (MSW) are difficult problems worldwide, but nowhere more than in the rapidly growing cities and super-cities where over half of the world's population now lives. An important mitigation is the diversion of reusable materials through sorting “at source” in the household, and in countries where most meal preparations occur at home, this includes sorting out food waste. In this paper we examine results from an early pilot scheme for food waste recycling in 100 communities in the metropolis of Shanghai, China, that has had limited success (28% diversion rates on average) and is ready for reflective changes. We consider different approaches in the literature designed to support sorting and reduction of MSW, such as law enforcement, top-down policies, community involvement and financial investment, and then explore which of these are present and missing in Shanghai. We find that there is considerable government support and willingness to make financial investment – about 1.37 million yuan per distract – but this is not as effective as it could be, apparently because of a traditional lack of rigorous use of data, of clarification of roles, and of supporting enforcement legislation. Even though financial investment is important and significant for the household waste sorting and reduction, it cannot produce results on its own. It should be targeted to appropriate stakeholders in the context of wider considerations to produce an overall environment for food waste recycling to become mainstream.