Recycling When It Counts

Yesterday a Canadian was giving me a hard time at work because I threw away my plastic drink bottle instead of putting it in the recycling box. I thought this was kind of funny. Oftentimes in China you see waste receptacle with one side labeled “for garbage” and the other side labeled “for recycling.” Then you look inside the thing and you realize that both sides just go to one big garbage bag. Now, tell me… are you really going to make sure you throw your recyclables in one side of the garbage bag, and your garbage in the other?

At most other places, anytime you throw anything out in China, it’s going to be picked through later for valuable recyclables. I simply threw away my plastic bottle in the office because I felt very sure it would be rescued for recycling by someone whose livelihood depended on it, and they’d be going through the same garbage whether I threw away that bottle or not.

Don’t get me wrong… I’m all for recycling. But what’s the point in empty gestures when you know what’s going on? Let’s recycle when it counts.

Steve at Praxis Language told a good story which illustrated this.

> A friend was taking a cruise on the Yangtze River in China. He was enjoying the cruise, but disgusted to see many passengers throwing their garbage overboard, into the river. Determined to do the right thing, he made sure to always walk all the way to the far end of the deck to the one garbage can to dispose of all his trash. It was a pain, and he was only one person vs. the littering masses, but it was the right thing to do.

> Later in the cruise, the garbage can filled up. A custodian went over to take care of it. To the friend’s horror, he lifted the garbage can and upended its contents into the Yangtze River.

Hmmm, on the one hand, always “recycling” (even when it’s pointless) reinforces good habits. On the other hand…


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Absolutely. In China, I simply don’t see the point. Interestingly, many of the Chinese I know are rather environment-conscious, not a common thing in China, and I know their behaviour is commendable and all that.
    But come on. Always make sure the light is off when you exit a room, stop the water tap when you soap your hands, but all that living in a house where the heater is constantly on full power and you have to regulate the temperature by opening the windows frequently. It’s utterly pointless! A drop in the ocean.

  2. As far as putting it in the right side of the bin, yeah makes little difference.
    One thing I could see improved is the amount of times it actually makes it in the bin.
    It’s just more aesthically appealing and well, hygenic, not to have trash lining the streets.
    But to a large extent, it’s not surprising. I remember being a kid and even into the late eighties people were still tossing their trash from car windows in the states. It was just habit.
    Along came the barage of the ‘no littering’, ‘don’t be a litterbug’, ‘save our planet’, movement in the early nineties and thus the norm was established. (not that it doesn’t happen anymore, but it’s certainly much less)

  3. Hey, I live in Canada and here we are constancing told from childhood to reduse reuse recycle….but still I don’t see the point of sides on a garbage bag.

  4. *constantly

  5. Jason,

    Don’t get me wrong… I’m definitely against litter no matter what. If I were the friend on the Yangtze River cruise, and I knew the garbage in the garbage can was all going to be dumped into the river, I would have held onto my garbage until after I got off the boat (and the friend on the boat probably would have done the same, had he known).

    I just meant that I’m probably not going to go out of my way to “recycle” when just throwing stuff away will amount to the same thing.

    (Actually, in the example with the plastic bottle in the office, I ended up putting it in the recycling bin after all… But I think that just means our cleaning lady gets the recycling money, rather than whoever sorts through the garbage at the dump.)

  6. That’s the funniest thing I’ve read all week.

  7. China’s excessive recycling-oriented society worries me. I hear that some kinds of products, foodstuff included, are made from WASTE. For example, they say that very cheap “臭豆腐” are sometimes made using filthy water to make it stinkier.

  8. […] check the full story here […]

  9. Not quite the same thing, but I put my recyclables in a separate bag, perhaps it discourages people from routing through my garbage. It ends up being a bag full of water and Diet Coke bottles.

    My neighbors and local homeless will jump out at me when I’m carrying the bag to the garbage! When I give them the bag I get thanks profusely. I tell them it’s no big deal, and I really mean it…

    I don’t even know how to return the recycleables for money. I’ve heard it’s about 1 mao a bottle, so I haven’t really bothered.

    That’s really horrible about the garbage from the cruises being dumped into the river.

  10. I share Changye’s concern. On the advice of two taxi drivers, all the empty bottles of gin in The ShangHighRoller’s garbage have been thoroughly smashed up to prevent refilling and resale.

    I generally love recycling, and the only alarm clock I need is 回收:彩电,冰箱,空调,旧电脑,洗衣机. Now I am trying to learn the Shanghainese version…

  11. I must say that those trash bins are completely pointless. For starters, most people don’t pay any attention to the labels so both sides have essentially the same mix of contents. And secondly, as John pointed out, like it or not, virtually everything in China gets recycled. When I worked in the barbershop for a month, I noticed that three or four times a day a different person would come by and pick through our trash. There were the obvious treasures, plastic and aluminum cans. But then there was a guy who would collect used plastic cups, and a woman who even collected the hair. By the end of the day, hardly anything was left over in the trash. Because of the value of materials compared with the price of labor, you can actually make a decent living in China by being a professional recycler. You can read more about this on a post I wrote on professional recycling a while back.

    John et al, sorry to plug my own blog on sinosplice, but I think this article accompanies your original post quite well.

  12. That’s the futility of trying to do the right thing here. Sometimes I wonder if I should just stop trying.

  13. John, I definitely agree.
    Just commenting about the habit of people dropping trash as they go. (and I suppose in rivers as well!)

    Also, just remembered that right by my first apartment in Nanjing was one of the places where all that stuff gets brought. Interesting to see the loads and loads of stuff being sorted through and readied for recycling. (I always wondered where it was going…)

  14. From what I hear, Americans used to drop their trash all over the place as well. It was not until the “don’t be a litter bug” campaigns of the 60’s where people started to really pay attention to where the trash goes.

    As for trash in China, during my first year teaching in a small town in Fujian, the school would collect all of their trash into a big dumpster….seems like a nice solution to the trash problem. That was until they started setting it afire every evening. Nothing like the smell of burning plastic to compliment the grey skies of China.

  15. this piece is kinda funny. The fact that someone will “recycle” it for you simply doesn’t give the excuse not to recycle( Here, by not doing what the Canadian suggested). you can definitely argue there is no point in doing this in China and I agree. My arguement is everyone is supposed to do whatever s/he is supposed to do. If my arguement applies to someone’s daily work, most of us would probably agree that we should do whatever we are supposed to do within the job responsibilities. I don’t see why this couldn’t apply to this trivial recycling issue. The only reason I can come up with is that people thinks this is not a big deal and your job is or you get fired. How changeable one’s standard could be!

  16. I think it’s to live a more graceful life. Because actually if one was to extend the logic, it would have also been fine to just toss the plastic bottle on the floor next to you. The cleaning lady would pick it up later anyway. And from there it would certainly get recycled.

    In Japan people at home separate out the paper, plastic, organic and inorganic materials. I remember in LA the city started with giving each home three bins, one for cans, another for newspapers, another for plastic, plus the trash can. Then one day it all became one big recycling bin and one trash bin, as things got sorted at the dump. Now I think it’s back to just one big trash can again.

    So I guess my question is, since it is absolutely a fact that China is already the nation that recycles the most, and there is little left to waste, what incentive is there for people here not to litter and toss things at their convenience?

    What could I possibly say to the shopclerk that tosses out the just-peeled orange peels out the door and into the street? We both know it will get picked up (and eventually gets to the pigs). People think I’m pretty lame for carrying around an empty drink can in my hand, looking for a trash can.

  17. You gotta still try, if only to keep your own dignity.

    I say we import some Singaporean cops to walk the streets randomly assessing fines and hauling people away for littering. Would take the entire population of Singapore just for Shanghai, but… I can dream.

    I agree with the above comments that Chinese people are WAY too used to others picking up after them. The Little Emperor generation isn’t going to be much better than its forerunners either. The leadership seem to be saying all the right crap about green this and sustainable that, but we all know that takes a while to trickle down, and takes a massive enforcement effort. But it’s better than 15 years ago when Deng was still spitting everywhere he went.

    Lantian, us laowais should look like the lame ones carrying the empty drink cans looking for garbage. Chinese people know we’re different, and while some will laugh and think how useless our effort is, most educated folk here strive in every way to be like Westerners. They will copy us. Then 10 or 20 years from now when this country is even more insanely polluted they’ll demand it from the rest of the population too.

    Just my (hopeful) prediction.

  18. We have 5-6 different garbage containers (depending on region).
    In Cologne it is: White glass, brown glass, green glass, plastic, other. Many cities / communities also got another one for organic waste.

    When recycling was introduced it worked so amazingly, that many waste incinerating plants fell way below their capacity so they started fighting over the garbage, importing it from other cities…

    On the other hand it was reported that initially lots of the “plastic recycling” garbage resurfaced. Guess where! In China. Unrecycled.

    But despite all that. I am 100% on the side of your canadian co-worker here!

    @Changye: Haha, quite a story. But are you definately sure it is not a creation of the natural aversion of all non-natives against 臭豆腐?

  19. Hi henning,

    Having read your story about meticulous recycling system in Cologne, I find that Japanese never beat German forever! With regard to 臭豆腐, fortunately or unfortunately I have just found the following related articles very easily. Do you have the nerve to read them?

    Some clever guys here in China seem to use not only black water but also feces and urine to make the quality of their products much better, in other words, stinkier. I strongly hope that they are NOT the tips of huge icebergs, or I hopelessly wish that were just a bad joke or something.

  20. Apartments complexes in Shanghai usually have battery recycling bin near the front gate. I’m a big fan, but again, the question does pop up – what happens to those batteries later? I hope they’re not dumped in the Huangpu.

  21. Actually I forgot the paper container. I really have to take the paper down now (plastic and glass are still OK, “other” I emptied this morning while buying Brötchen = bread rolls for breakfast…)

    Changye, that is seriously disgusting. Thank goodness I have never had the guts to try 臭豆腐 anyway. It belongs to the small selection of Chinese dishes I will probably never touch in my life. Now I am more serious about that than ever.

  22. P.S.: Changye, actually I am against countries “beating” each other and hope there will be no need to worry about who beats whom. Nothing against competition on firm level, but countries should cooperate to maximize benefits for mankind.

  23. In the spirit of injecting into the discussion comparisons of how other countries in east Asia deal with trash and recycling…

    In the big cities here in 台灣, you can only dump your household garbage in special bags (with special stamps) which you buy at convenience stores. This payment offsets the cities’ costs for waste disposal, AND gives people the incentive to separate recyclables.

    When you hear Fur Elise on the trash-truck loudspeakers at dusk, it’s time to trot out your trash and recyclables. Now, they say they will begin fining people who put organic kitchen waste (leftover food, vegetable peelings, etc) with the normal trash bags. That is now supposed to be dumped into special bins on the trucks and later composted or fed to pigs.

    I saw a similar pay-according-to-trash-volume system in Switzerland.

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