Monday, February 11, 2013


Garbage, it brings both challenges and opportunities

Standing on the edge of the Huangpu River, one is overwhelmed by the millions of lights emanating from the skyscrapers on Shanghai’s downtown skyline. Beneath the deceptively-glittering-postcard-picture-perfect image however, float tons of garbage. Far from being perturbed by this literal undercurrent of detritus, a smiling couple parts hands as the man opens a pack of cigarettes and tosses the plastic and foil into the water below. The woman drops her soda can to the floor but this is quickly snatched away by an older woman shuffling by, dragging her clinking-clanking black garbage bag with one hand and a rusty supermarket cart with the other. She has tied plastic supermarket bags on top of her coats sleeves to protect the fabric from dirt and looks frail but then heaves a stack of folded cardboard boxes and newspapers into her cart.

This shuffling bag lady is one of the many people who scour the city streets looking for recyclable garbage, motivated by financial incentives rather than environmental concern. Although recycling is not institutionalized in China it is socialized: nothing is wasted and for many people garbage is a means to financial security. For example, there is always a flurry of activity in city alleyways as dozens of housewives or their maids sell their recyclable garbage to waste-collectors, supplementing their household incomes. Although many of these waste collectors are listed in the phonebook, the recycling industry is not strictly regulated. Even so, 1.8million tons of waste paper were recycled in 2007 and 200,000 tons of glass and 200,000 tons of plastic in 2008.

The collector stacks items on his portable scale and pays according to weight. When he is finished he peddles away on his dilapidated tricycle, drawing his cart behind him, filled high with stacks of paper and even a small refrigerator. Children run behind him shouting as he makes his way to a waste collection station. The station will then sell the materials to recycling companies or to manufacturers who can use the materials. Electronic scrap facilities have even begun to apply low-tech, profitable, and environmentally sound approaches to the recycling of e-scrap in China. Nothing is wasted. Recycling is a fact - and a way - of life.

While the collector is doubtless not immune to the challenges imposed by the shift in the world economy and a related fall in commodity prices, he is still able to support his family, on average earning 500RMB (70USD) a week. In addition to approximately 60,000 individual collectors like him, countless small business owners owe their economic survival to recycling:  the woman in Fuxing Park who sells purses made from recycled milk cartons to both tourists and locals; the man who wheels about a modified barrel oven (on close inspection made from a discarded manufacturing container) filled with coal to roast potatoes; and vendors who have scraped together enough money to purchase the 2.35USD permit and have set up small flimsy stalls made of recycled plywood and chunks of scrap metal. These are all a step towards empowerment.

The effect of these recycled bits and pieces of construction material, and of these recycling-dependent lives, is somewhat chaotic. Since the close of the Olympics the police no longer patrol the streets to eliminate the most tangible and visible vestige of this floating population – its garbage.  The government has taken steps to promote recycling but the effect of these measures has been limited. For example, shops were banned from giving away plastic bags in January 2008 yet a country wide poll of 40,000 Netizens found that consumption has not decreased from the average three billion a day. ''It is too difficult to change a long-term habit,'' said Wang Ling, a Shanghai housewife. ''I always forget to bring bags with me when I go to the supermarket and buy a few plastic bags. The bag isn't expensive, anyway.'' The government also placed recycling bins in four colors (blue for recoverable garbage, green for glass, red for harmful garbage and black for other) in neighborhood alleyways but most people simply toss their garbage in whichever bin is closest. But never mind, a few minutes later someone will sift through the garbage and remove that which has a re-sale value.

Economic changes are taking place on an accelerated time frame in China but the social base is still largely structured on traditional values and as such, people are not generally concerned with protecting the environment without compensation. One is very conscious of people tossing garbage - on the road as they walk, from car windows, from apartment blocks – and of the speed with which recyclable materials are picked up by collectors. The theme of the 2010 World Expo Shanghai is "Better City, Better Life," and the government claims that environmentalism and recycling are principal components of this purported ‘better’ ness. However, when speaking with a young Chinese person or with an older migrant worker, their responses echo one another. “I will not bother to recycle since someone will always come and get the garbage that can be recycled; this is the job of other people.” 

Since nothing is wasted in China, more than 70% of the materials that feed China’s recycling industry are imported, according to China National Resources Recycling Association. However, Western values of over consumption and the related production of waste are slowly being integrated into the Chinese social fabric. Disposing of excess materials as prices for scrap and recyclables are dropping (50% in the past months according to the Shanghai Waste Material Recycling Association) will become an increasingly contentious issue in a country where traditional cultural attitudes about garbage and waste management exist. Is Paul Gilding, the environmental business expert, correct in claiming that China is nearing The Great Disruption, a point where nature and greed can no longer be compatible?

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