Recycling: Personal To Professional

The current recycling system must inevitably change. Photo from

Some recycling news: A pilot program in 55 Chinese cities succeeded in increasing recycling rates to 70%, and the government announced plans to improve official waste collection systems. China usually shows up on the recycling map as a processing center for plastic bottles and old computers from America, so it’s promising to see progress in local recycling.

Typical daily experience suggests that most daily waste already gets recycled, but not because of effective collection systems. In China recycling has a personal touch. There always seems to be someone around to scrounge for empty bottles, and overloaded bicycles stacked dangerously high with recyclables are one of the more remarkable sights on typical Chinese streets.

But for all that, recycling seems to happen despite the best efforts of the bulk of the population. Recycling bins, as such, are rarely available, and when they are the distinction doesn’t extend past the name on the lid. In many cases it’s lucky if the waste, recyclable or not, even makes it to a bin. Conscience nor stigma seem to play much of a role when it comes to leaving trash in the street. A recent survey found that while 90% of people approve of policies that require separating different types of garbage, only 18% consistently follow the rules.

It’s a system that works because the economic incentives and trash collection systems are just right, but that’s changing fast. For one, the ranks of motivated self-appointed recyclers will inevitably dwindle as average incomes rise, meaning less trash will undergo their purifying inspection. But modernization also means that waste collection systems will become more organized and controlled.

Right now the bulk of trash is collected by individuals peddling three wheeled bicycles. They usually have a bag tied on their handle bars for anything recyclable. But that’s already changing. The increasing number of chain malls and restaurants are an example. They keep the bottle collectors out to preserve their social acceptability, leaving their trash unsorted before it gets tossed into big commercial trucks.

The personal touch and ragtag efficiency born of legions of independent trash collectors is going to go away. The question is what will take it’s place. Almost inevitably average people are going to need to play a bigger role, making the statistic that only 20% of people actually follow recycling rules worrisome.

The recent news is a sign the government understands the problem. They’re spending a lot of money to build new facilities, educate the public, and regulate garbage collectors. One almost certain outcome is an increase in garbage fees. Maybe that will encourage everyday people to take trash more seriously. We’ll see.

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