DVD Waste

Cheap DVDs are one of the well-known perks of living in China. For roughly $1 per disc, you can buy almost any movie or recent TV series. There’s a huge market for this form of entertainment, and it creates two significant forms of waste material.


Bag o' Crappy DVDs

Pirated DVDs

Some of the Chinese DVD vendors are using enough packaging these days to make even the Japanese blush. A recent DVD purchase of mine revealed the following layers of packaging:

1. Cellophane wrap
2. Cardboard display sleeve
3. Plastic box
4. Paper envelope
5. DVD sleeve case
6. Flimsy plastic sleeve

…and inside that was the actual DVD. The Chinese vendors are getting more elaborate with their packaging than the real (unpirated) DVD sellers. Why? Almost all of it goes straight into the garbage, and while some of the packaging may look good on the shelf, I can’t see the need for 6 layers of it.


Bag o' Crappy DVDs

Bag o’ crappy DVDs

These pirated DVDs are essentially as disposable as a magazine. After one view, you might be ready to get rid of it, but if you want to keep it, you can.

I remember when I first came to China I thought that every DVD I was buying was going into “my collection.” Well, you don’t have to be here long to realize that your collection will very quickly grow beyond manageable size if you keep everything you buy. And clearly not every DVD you buy is worth keeping, even if the picture quality is excellent.

So now after I watch a DVD, if it’s not deemed worthy of keeping (and most aren’t), it goes directly into the “bag of crappy DVDs.” I usually just end up giving that bag to my ayi. Not sure what she does with them.

How about you? What do you do with your unwanted DVDs? It’s a strange problem to have, but when I look at the amount of DVDs that are bought and sold on the streets of China, I’m reminded that it must add up to an awful lot of DVD waste.


John Pasden

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


  1. Matthew Stinson Says: October 7, 2008 at 12:16 am

    Illegal downloads save the planet!

    I know what you mean about the collection, most of them are sitting around in my apartment, attracting dust. What’s more, many of the DVDs were DVD-ROMs and DVD rot can set in. If I tried out most of the DVDs I have I’d expect a sizable percentage are already unplayable after a couple of years.

  2. I mostly bought the live concert DVDs and TV show DVDs in China. Was quite surprised to find the rarest of rare classic Rock DVDs like Thin Lizzy in a place like inner mongolia!

    I still have those but threw away all the movie DVDs when i left China

  3. I remember the first time I went to China, I stayed at an expat’s house and he had a whole storage room of movies. I have to say it was great way to get over culture shock. But he had a big “villa” house so not everyone will have the space to store all those movies.
    Most the time I dumped the movie, after seeing it, you end up watching a lot of movies that are not really good but they are so cheap you cant help but buy it.
    Just a warning, I brought some DVD’s back to US. And they wouldnt work in my DVD player. I guess my real DVD player wont play fake DVDs.

  4. I’ve stopped buying the stuff in favor of Youku.com as well.

  5. My mates and I would frisbee them from our third or fourth floor windows to give a quick hello to each other as we walked to class/ ran for cover.

  6. But for real, don’t litter, and if you’re going to steal do it digitally as Matthew said.

  7. Hmm…not all of those are movies in that store. I see a Jay Chou “霍元甲” EP in there on the right edge, the one I made a note on. I haven’t bought that, but when I do it won’t be the black market version.

    The best movies do seem to make it onto Youku and YouTube pretty fast. I watched “不能说的秘密” (which was surprisingly good, and I’m not just saying that because I’m a huge fan of Jay Chou) the first time that way, but then I broke down and bought the $5 VCD set through YesAsia.

    Anyone need lots and lots of coasters?

  8. You buy DVD’s? That is sooo early 21st century!!! When I lived in China, I would just download everything with BT, and delete it when I was done. Usually the resolution is as good, if not better than DVDs, and as you’ve pointed out…you don’t have to deal with all that annoying packaging.

  9. In Sichuan, I had a roommate that bought so many DVDs, she never even had the chance to see them all. I remember when she went home to the states, she had to get rid of some stuff she came to China with to make space.

  10. Don’t buy DVD, download! Just like you said, most of the movies are for one time watching only.

    BT is a good way to go, and i’m content with the quality. 700MB download is almost as good as DVD quality, at 1.42GB you don’t see any difference.

    The only downside is some old or niche movies are hard to find, you more probably find it in pirated DVD.

  11. I much prefer the hike out to my favourite DVD place in Pudong to sitting at home and waiting for the little Bit Torrent bar to hit 100%.

    But to answer your original question, every time I go home, I take my entire DVD collection with me. I give folders of DVDs out as presents. My family & friends love them. Pirated DVDs beat chopsticks, QiPaos, or flimsy toys as souvenirs of China any day.

    And when I get back to Shanghai, I start my DVD collection all over again.

  12. ^I’d rather take a qipao. I think I’m collecting the things, and no one just gives them to me.

  13. I don’t know how some of you guys do it. I’ve begun downloading TV shows that I like that won’t hit the shelves for a little while, but downloading entire movies? This means you have to watch it on your laptop or computer, sitting at your computer desk or having it overheat your lap while listening to it on horrible mini-speakers. What happened to sitting on the couch in the living room to watch it on the TV?

    Because I prefer to buy most movies (although not very often), we’ve ended up with loads of viewed DVD’s that we probably won’t transport back to the States. Our little group of foreigners out here swaps DVD’s all the time, so really the only ones we buy are new ones that have received good praise from our friends back home.

  14. @ Josh: who on earth watches DVD’s on their laptop anyway? Apart during travelling and lunch break of course. If you live in China chances are that the dirt cheap PC you got assembled has got at least two ways to be connected to just about any TV set. Pull the plug, kick back on your sofa and enjoy environment friendly pirated material 🙂

    As for hard copies, some editions reach ludicrous levels of waste, but they make indeed nice presents. Since they’re not going to live for long anyway, swapping or giving it away for free it’s a nice way to extend their lifetime.

    I wonder if the people collecting plastic bottles and paper boxes will ever have interest towards this DVD flood.

  15. Donate our dvd’s to friends or coffee shops here in Xiamen.

    It helps on two accounts, one to get rid of the dvd’s and any old books, and it helps with my good deed quota for the day.

  16. My flatmate and I in Beijing used to use unwanted DVDs as coasters, which we would designate as such by writing on the shiny side in marker pen. Usually this would be a cryptic allusion to the movie contained therein.

    This led to a convenient shorthand for the value of a film after its first viewing.

  17. Josh: personally, I have a cord that runs from the video-out of my computer (a cheap-ass laptop), to the video-in of my TV.

    Once you’ve got it all set up, it’s really easy. I still get DVDs every once in a while, because yeah it takes a couple of hours to download a movie.

  18. […] that drives us crazy too: Why is there so much pointless packaging associated with Chinese DVDs? And that’s even before you get to the discs themselves. […]

  19. Mike not in Jubei Says: October 7, 2008 at 2:08 pm


    When I lived in Taiwan and would go on business to Mainland China buying DVD’s and Chinese Pop CD’s was like a hobby. The CD’s I would go back to the hotel and play and make a judgement in 10 or 20 seconds if it was a keeper. If it was not I would just give them back to one of the street guys I bought them from. Eventually I would get a special deal from them.

    When I was about to leave Taiwan for the US for good. I only wanted to bring a few hundred back so most I left in the office for the Taiwan Engineers I worked with. They were terrible they would take and never give back so others could watch.

    Finally I am now in Japan and as we are renting our US home I still had 100’s that I know I will never watch again nor did I want to risk bringing to Japan. Our local State University was thrilled to come get them.

    Three of them they were going to use in a Chinese Film Study Class and two were going to be shown in a campus film festival. They had thought they would have to rent them at commercial rates. I know they know where they came from but it did not seem to bother them.

  20. I download to get the latest episodes of current TV shows( then watch them in the living room from my laptop hooked up to the TV), but the problem with downloading movies is that I often don’t know what I want, it works much better to go to the DVD store where I can browse whats available, much more relaxing that looking up movies on IMDB.com to find out what they are before deciding if I want to download.

  21. Hehe.. I remember when I went to Vanuatu a few years back, it was the same thing.. For 20 dollars you could get 20 dvds, or 20 games etc. A lot of them were pretty crap quality but a few of them would be worth keeping.

    However now I just download everything. I also have my computer connected to my TV via HDMI cable so I can output HD signal. Also computer is connected to home theatre via SPDIF coax cable.

    I bought my computer and tv especially for this purpose.. 🙂

  22. By coincidence I found this article today in my RSS reader:


    “The companies say the disks are sent to China for processing, but are unable to guarantee that the discs are recycled in an environmentally benign way…”

  23. if they’re chinese movies of good quality, i keep them for studying purposes.

    if they’re other foreign movies (like arabic) i keep them because they’re hard to find through torrents and “ar-risalah” is just a damn good movie.

    otherwise i use youku/tudou or, if i do buy, i donate them to my students to practice their english.

    in a related note my burger today was wrapped in paper then put in a box then put in a small bag which was then put in a bigger bag next to my bagged cup of cola. thank god they gave me two fapiao too so i can verify that i in deed bought a burger.

  24. I watch some stuff on Youku, but the resolution is just not good enough to really enjoy.

    In my current apartment, I have a big screen TV for the first time in my life, and I do enjoy using it. My wife and I almost never watch TV; we use the TV specifically for DVDs (and occasionally video games).

    I tried the HDMI cable thing, and it didn’t work. I’m thinking of getting a little computer just to hook up to my TV and watch stuff I download over my home network, but my home network has its own bag of complications.

    Until I figure all that network stuff out, I prefer DVDs to downloads.

  25. Long live street shops! We were able to build a nice collection of Criterion, Eclipse and other cool editions. The only drawback, one in every five DVDs gets stuck in the middle of the movie. Maybe, it’s time to spare the disc drive and get a disposable DVD player like locals do?

    I’m also mystified, why does every disc we buy have a scratch near the central opening? Looks like someone deliberately puts it there to legitimately discard/sell them later…

  26. The other way to watch the bootlegs is to just get a DVD player that can read .avi files off a USB input or SD card. They just cost a couple hundred kuai.

  27. I download Xvid encoded TV shows (widescreen, from HD source), load them onto a USB memory stick, stick it in my XBox 360 and it plays them flawlessly on my HD big-screen television…totally green! As for my DVDs, it IS a collection – I have upwards of 500 of the things and I won’t throw them away. Mostly because 95% of them are store bought here and are legit…but the 5% that are the “high quality but still not legit” Chinese flicks and shows that I’ve had family bring back for me, I still don’t consider disposable. I like having a large library of flicks though…been working on this collection since real soon after DVD was introduced.

  28. When I first came to China, the whole ‘buying dvd’s anywhere I looked’ was fascinating to me (and all my foreign roommates). The fascination eventually grew thin and became commonplace. I do remember though one of the first nights I was in Shanghai and we went to one of the nearby dvd stores. I was totally in awe (and heaven)

    I have lived in four different houses in Shanghai and each time, after I found my way around my neighborhood, I’ve found my favorite local dvd seller / shop. My favorite place was near Fu Dan University. This guy had a small shop, just below my apartment complex. After going there quite often for late night movie runs, one night he offered me this new promotion, a dvd pass. Basically it was a card that I bought for 100 RMB that was good for 100 rentals. This place was just like any other dvd shop, but somehow I was able to pay 100 RMB up front for this card and rent any movie in the store, just like a rental shop. When I rented a movie (or two or three), he would write it down in this book, and keep track of my total. It was totally awesome, because like everyone above has said, keeping the dvd is kind of useless, and all that packaging is even more wasteful. Unfortunately, I have never seen any such promotion in my new neighborhood.

  29. Regarding taking those dvds back home: How did you do that? Isn’t it a real hassle/danger at customs?

  30. There is one big difference between downloading and buying the pirated DVDs. Your seven kuai will contribute to the economy. You’ll pay the sales person, the shop owner, the producer, the guys at the factory, actually everyone besides the fat Hollywood studio. But even those will profit indirectly, as popularity always pays off someway.
    But you have to get rid of the waste, yes.

  31. Mike not in Jubei Says: October 14, 2008 at 2:16 pm

    Earlier I wrote that my wife gave a huge number of the DVD’s I bought in China to our State University in the US. A few days ago she showed me a letter from the University thanking us for the donation that they have valued at $4,000! That will be a nice tax deduction.

  32. Mike not in Jubei: Wouldn’t it be obvious that the donated DVDs are pirated (with Chinese characters)? $4000??? Where are they going, to the library for rental?

    Anyways, more DVDs equal larger DVD binders. The binder’s by Case Logic that hold 200 discs. But you’re right, many times, a DVD is simply not worth keeping because you’ll never watch it again. I just added 1) Iron Man 2) War, Inc. 3) Indian Jones 4) Zohan to the collection.

    Are the DVD9 vs. DVD5 still being used as marketing tactics? Remember that one stop in Hangzhou that sold “thin” discs as “higher quality?”

  33. Mike not in Jubei Says: October 16, 2008 at 5:22 pm


    All the DVD’s were Chinese Movies. No Western Movies. Often it is not clear to me when a shop is legit or not in Shanghai. Anyways the Prof. is Chinese and how they plan to use all of them I do not know nor want to know. I did say upfront when I contacted them I could not be sure they were pirated.

    I am just happy with the tax deduction.

  34. […] rarely ever watch the same DVD again, leading to piles and piles of unwanted DVDs, and just tons of DVD waste in general. And this Netflix plan is actually a legal […]

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