The Reality of Recycling in China

Sasha | March 14, 2012 | Comments (5)

In China how things are run and managed are far from conventional by western standards so it comes as no surprise that China has adopted a clever yet somewhat unconventional way to run their recycling system, a system so crucial to the reduction of China’s massive volumes of waste thrown out everyday.

But unlike in other countries where the recycling systems are generally government initiatives, here in China the recycling system has nothing to do with smart local government policies and good management around China’s neighbourhoods.  And if my neighbourhood is anything to go by there isn’t a visible recycling “scheme” at all.  All the so called government policies and education systems for recycling reported on the news some how never even made it to my area!

But although a good recycling system with clearly labeled recycling/waste bins in apartment complexes around Shanghai is what the government said they’ve implemented (complete hogwash) just like the systems in western countries, in reality recycling is driven by the financially needy elderly.

In China, recycling is a money maker (though not much of a money maker!). The system works by offering people a cash rebate for their recycling much like the rebate schemes implemented for the recycling of aluminum cans and glass bottles in many western countries

This rebate scheme has many of China’s elderly scavenging through dirty bins in search of recyclables to exchange for cash . Older men load up bicycle pulled trailers often with the piles of recycling looming dangerously high above there heads.

Overloaded bicycle trailer China Recycling

Some people even go to the lengths of scavenging under the seats on the metro well into the night until the last train ends trying to fill the huge bag they carry, a bag often nearly bigger then the old lady carrying it!

Now in China no one is going to get rich from selling their recycling but for China’s low-class, every little bit they can get counts sparking a competitive if not sometimes catty war over recycling.

In my neighbourhood people chase me for my recycling, literally! I have old ladies shout and rapidly hobble along behind me to get my attention so that they can snatch the recycling out of my hand before I put it down next to the bin and someone else inevitably adds it to their collection.

But I know where my loyalties lie, they lie with the sweet old lady who chats to me everyday.  She is the neighbour that makes me feel like I belong here, that I’m not an intruding alien in this very Chinese neighbourhood. Every time she sees me she lights up, smiles, waves vigorously as we exchange our twice daily Ni Hao’s!  Rain, hail or shine, when I leave for work and come back home at lunchtime she’s there to greet me.

So it’s no surprise that she get’s the first pick of my recycling. If she’s outside when I take the recycling down she’s the one to get it. I give it to her out of everyone in my complex, I give it to her over my next door neighbours because I know she really needs it, she really needs every coin she can get.

It breaks my heart to see her, an old lady scavenging through bins, but that’s what she does.  I see her untying bags of waste in hope there might be some recycling in amongst the muck. She spends all day scavenging through the bins in our complex, in the park across the road, in the bins in the dirty market.

Collecting recycling consumes her entire life!

My friendly neighbour!

And it’s not just her, all over China elderly people scavenge through bins to collect as much recycling as they can and hoard it in their often tiny apartments until the monthly pick up, and all for just a few kuai.

I vividly remember walking the streets in Chengdu with my Dad.  I felt we were being watched and followed by an old lady.  At first I thought it was just curiosity, after all my Dad was the only one on the street with a orange beard and green eyes.  We continued to walk down the street, in the distance I could see a man with a bag overflowing with plastic bottles heading towards a bin.  The old lady quickly overtook us and headed for the very same bin, also carrying a bag full of bottles. She searched through the bin and salvaged only two bottles and quickly put them in her bag as if fearful someone would come along and snatch them from her clutches.

After this short diversion she was back staring at us, staring as the water bottle touched my lips as I quenched my thirst in the disgusting humid heat.  It was at that moment I realised what had been going on, she wanted my water bottle.  I quickly drained the bottle and walked over and handed it to her, a huge smile appeared on her tired, grim face.


Recycling collection day, today the houses in my neighbouhood will be emptied ready for another month of recycling hoarding. Today is the day when my neighbouhoods army of recyclers are at their most competitive.  Getting down the stairs with an armload of recycling is an an impossible task.  Only three floors down and already I’m being excitedly shouted at in Shanghainese for my recycling.  The recycling guy at that very moment was weighing their months recycling, my pile could add a few more kuai to there months recycling earnings.

Recycling rebates are paid in weight, the more weight the more money. The question is how much recycling do you need to earn a decent amount of money?

Recycling China

Rumour has it that some people can earn up to 1000RMB a month from recycling but in reality this would be a very rare few, the rare few who owned carts to scavenge large quantities from all over the city.

With the compeditiveness of recycling in over crowded neighbourhoods, for the adverage person they would be lucky to earn even 100RMB a month.

So why do they do it?

For many Chinese elderly living off pitiable pensions with children who can barely afford to support themselves with China’s rising prices and inflation let alone support their elderly parents, every kuai counts. For them 100 RMB could pay for rice and simple vegetables for a month or could mean that they can afford to add meat to their meals, or actually afford to put on the heating in the bitter cold winter!

It is a sad reality that is driving China’s recycling system and yet it is that reality that is doing China good.  It’s cleaning up the country and supporting local communities, better then any government run and government profiting recycling schemes!

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Category: Culture

About Sasha: Sasha is a sassy Aussie lassie who is living it up as an expat in Shanghai. When she’s not teaching English or slaving away writing her next story she can be found scheming her next grand travel adventure, dancing up a storm at Shanghai’s hippest clubs and taking an uncountable number of photos of random things. View author profile.

Comments (5)

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  1. Furio says:

    Hey Sasha,

    I just stumbled on your website and got curious because taking pics of the recycling bikers is one of my main “Chinese” hobbies : – P

    As for me, I let my bottles on the bin at the exit of my building so that I know the guardian will make some extra kuai of it…

    • Sasha says:

      Hi Furio, we must be kindred spirits! lol I’m always stalking down that next shot of the recycling bikers!

      • Furio says:

        haha BTW the hugest “recycling center” I saw so far was in Beijing, just out the back door of Beiwai University.

        The guys own a big truck and collect aaaall the garbage of the University and of the hundreds of street restaurants over there.

        They do have a business ; )

        • Sasha says:

          Those guys have gotta be making truck loads of cash! (Pardon the pun!) lol If you have the smarts I can see how some people can really turn it into a good income.

  2. Marlon says:

    That’s the way to go Sasha! Let us go green and save the Earth one city at a time. :) Thanks for sharing the noble task that you and your people are doing despite the circumstances.

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