In China, Recycling by Tricycle

Back home in the U.S., recycling relies heavily on a system of government initiatives, eco-awareness and slight shifts to our behavior so that we toss our trash into the right bin. But in China, recycling has become second nature without so much as blue bins or elementary school lessons on the 3Rs. Walk down the street in urban China clutching an empty water bottle (necessary of course due to water quality and bad plumbing) and in no time an old lady will show up seemingly out of nowhere, hands and eyes hungrily intent on taking your plastic. She's not a treehugger: she just wants to survive.

The World Bank reports that China's army of scrap collectors numbered 2.5 million in 2005. In Beijing, an industrious scrap collector can earn around US $150 per month, about half of what a Beijing cab driver earns. To see what I'm talking about, check out the first installment of the brilliant video podcast series China's Green Beat. In it, my friend John Romankiewicz and his partner Zhao Xiangyu dive into Beijing's recycling pile to give us a peek at how scrap collectors on tricycles and migrant sorters in back alleys make their living running urban China's low-tech recycling network.Whether it goes in the blue bin or not, a lot of stuff in China is simply too valuable to landfill. But much, like the mountains of detritus from the country's vast construction boom, is not recycled, or even disposed of properly. It's estimated that less than 20% of China's waste is trashed according to international standards. Waste disposal and recycling -- including, along China's coast, recycling Western e-waste -- is often a highly toxic affair, resulting in severe soil, air and water pollution.

With a national "circular economy" policy behind them, Chinese cities like Beijing are attempting to improve their recycling infrastructure. This year Beijing built the world's largest plastics recycling plant and continued to install recycling bins around the city. The city is hoping to drastically raise its recycling rates, driving up paper recovery, for instance, from 10 percent to 80 percent by 2010.

By continuing to modernize waste treatment, help NGOs raise citizen awareness of the 3Rs (reduce, reuse, recycle), build more incentives for the industry to improve, reduce and recycle materials (think of Bill McDonough's idea), and better enforce standards for waste disposal, Chinese cities like Beijing have a shot at dealing with their growing trash pile -- and making much more money than Beijing's freelance recyclers make now.

As Li Qiaofeng, executive director of China National Resources Development Holdings, a mainland company that is setting up a national network of recycling zones to manage electronic recycling, told trade magazine Electronics Supply and Manufacturing,

In Japan, recycling is a $360 billion industry. In the U.S., it's a $100 billion industry. In China, recycling revenues are only $5.4 billion a year. China National Resources aims to grow the recycling industry into a trillion-dollar business.

Already, China is a dominant player in recycling the world's paper. It is the birthplace of paper, after all, and of Zhang Yin, whose paper recycling company has made her the world's richest woman.

Still, taking out the trash properly isn't just a matter of money of course. As China's urbanites become more prosperous, China's garbage pile-up in 2020 could reach 400 million tons, equivalent to the volume generated by the entire world in 1997. As much as we love what they do, no army of bottle-collecting grandmas and recyclers on tricycles will be able to save China's cities from that.

See Treehugger on Cradle to Cradle, China's circular economy policy (and here), and the country's dire e-waste

For more statistics on how China deals with its rapidly growing garbage pile, see the 2005 World Bank Waste Report here. And see global stats on waste at this UN stats page.

via China's Green Beat. Also check out the video podcasts on solar water heating and biomass energy in China.

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