Daily Anecdote: Mom and Pop Recycling

I’m on a budding green streak so I did a little poking and digging into recycling in China. I was always under the impression that Chinese people don’t care about recycling; we’re too busy making our newfound wealth to bother with separating the trash or participating in green fundraisers. Apparently I’m wrong. Recycling in China is a big deal, it just happens in a different way than I’m used to.

My perception that Chinese “don’t care” comes from the fact that I’m accustomed to seeing recycling born out of a moral decision. People living in developed countries choose to rinse out their milk bottles and sort their garbage because they are environmentally conscious. Although this level of green morality is not yet be widespread in China, recycling happens here — and extensively so — as a result of a million small economic decisions. People recycle in developing countries because they can make a living doing it.

The truth is in the numbers. China is one of the world leaders in recycling waste paper, which makes up some 60% of the fiber used to manufacture paper products here. I suspect there are similarly surprising statistics in plastics and glass.

Indeed, everywhere I look I see mom and pop recyclers busily going about their work. On most street corners there are old ladies fishing treasures out of the city garbage cans with tongs. The more vigilant ones follow me around if they see me carrying a half empty bottle of beverage, waiting to snatch it up the minute I dispose of it. I’ve even had people come up to me to ask, “Are you going to finish that?” (This usually leads to my gulping the drink down to save them the trouble of sifting through the bin). Tricycles regularly go through residential neighborhoods, their riders beating drums, singing in loud voices for people to sell their household waste.

Once the reusables are gathered, they are collected via an extensive network of centers. Tricycles zip by every road with their “trunks” piled high with aluminum cans, plastic bottles, or corrugated board. They’re en route to the recycling centers, which seem to have multiplied over the years when I wasn’t watching. If you go by a nondescript warehouse at the right hour you’ll see tricycles lining up to deposit their finds in exchange for cash. The dinky rooms hold monstrously large mountains of recyclable goods.

Whether economic or moral, environmentally-friendly decisions are made on a daily basis here. The government is doing its part to bridge the gap between moral and cash-incentivized green behavior. I’ve already mentioned the “no free plastic bags” policy now in place in China. Public awareness campaigns are also on the rise. On subway cars, an animated frog named Leon lights up the screens and to entertain commuters with cartoon clips about the merits of recycling. On buses, valuable advertising space is taken up with little diagrams about how many trees or barrels of oil can be saved from recycling. I hope that as China makes the transition from developing to developed country our green behavior will evolve seamlessly from cash-based decisions to morality-driven ones.

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