Lessons in Trash



BEIJING At the beginning of the year I stated that my goal was to explore some of the green stories within China. As the Chinese New Year holiday season comes to a close, this will be easier to do. One tradition of the Chinese New Year is to clean out your home. One step for me was emptying out the waste bin in my apartment of wrappers and other non-perishable items I had been collecting. One thing my waste bin did was help me control my waistline. The more wrappers I was producing by buying packaged instead of fresh food, the more weight I gained. In Chinese there is the equivalent of “junk food” only it better translates as trash/waste/garbage food. It’s fitting that this food produced the most trash. More simply the bin served as a check to know how much garbage I was producing.


In my visits to China I have tried to minimize my purchases of goods, reducing the chances of contributing items to landfills. As perhaps is the case for everything in China, the story of trash is complicated. As Jonathan Watts highlights in When A Billion Chinese Jump , recycling of computers in the US is not always as green as it seems and keeps me from quickly buying a new computer. When I throw a plastic bottle in the garbage here in China, I sometimes have more confidence that it will get recycled than when I put a bottle in a recycling bin in the United States. Like the streets of Brooklyn there are people who work the garbage looking for any recycables, yet the intensity and the diversity of people is greater than what I saw in Brooklyn. These recycables are then sold on the streets to people with small trucks before it goes on to later stages.


On China’s National Day (October 1st), I attended a workshop on trash and climate change, primarily organized by an organization called GAIA . One thing that struck me, was pictures of those in China that rent “stalls” at landfills where they sort through the garbage, but also sleep and eat there. Yet in China, in police stations, university offices, underpasses and public bathrooms I have seen rooms with beds where works live and sleep. It was interesting to hear discussions comparing India and China, both with limited residential or “curbside” recycling on the nature of the United States. The Indian participants suggested that residents in China take matters into their own hands creating some jobs for a few individuals who would handle the recycables, yet there were objections from the Chinese that pseudo-government arrangements were already in place that could not be bypassed. On the government side, I have seen advertisements on the subway video screens for home recycling, yet I have yet to see it in practice. In general on the street there are two trash receptacles, one for garbage and one for recycables, but I don’t think many people, myself included, pay much attention to the labels.


Particularly in summer individuals come by regularly to check the receptacles for any recycables. Not all trash makes it to the receptacles, but much of it does. Last year the Beijing Goethe Institute highlighted the work of Wang Jiuliang at the art community 798. One of the images I remember was a cow wandering amid a field draped with plastic.


Yet in Beijing much of the plastic and other refuse is picked up by an army of individuals in orange suits picking up garbage with an intensity that even Disneyland and its five minute rule would be hard to match. I have just about gotten to the point where I don’t think twice when I see the orange suit picking up garbage in the middle of a busy six lane street, or the woman in the dark of morning in sub-freezing temperatures out sweeping.


The government advertisements, street cleaners and those who patrol the garbage receptacles reflect the grey nature of public and private partnership when it comes to environmental issues in China. In the meantime I continue to try and limit my trash, which sometimes means buying glazed crabapples on a stake from a street vendor instead of that candy bar.



China, Recycling