Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Glimpse into Waste Management in China

By Stephanie Welsh, PPI Social Media Maven and former ex-pat in Shanghai, China

I admit, before I moved to Shanghai, China I didn’t think a lot about my garbage, or anyone else’s.  When I arrived in Shanghai in 2007 with my family for a 2 year assignment, the changes to our daily lives were tremendous.  So it was a few weeks before I started to realize that “waste management” is a whole different thing in China.

I moved to China from Portland, Oregon, where there is a very strong focus on recycling and the environment.  It is deeply ingrained in me that we should recycle whatever we can.  So when I realized that everything in our garbage went into a larger garbage receptacle for our apartment building, I was appalled.  Where were the recycle bins?  How could I recycle all the cardboard, plastic, etc?   A few days later I got my first glimpse into how different their waste management system was in China.  It happened when our new housekeeper asked for permission to sort through our trash and pull out the recyclable materials.  I imagined there must be an industry of some sort here, otherwise why would she want it?  Of course I granted her permission, and then asked what she did with it.  My Mandarin language skills were quite poor at the time so I only partially understood her answer, but I understood enough to know that she would be able to sell any recyclable materials. 

Over the next few months, I was able to observe how the entire system worked.  The system in China started out the same as it does in America, with our family generating waste.  Next, we sorted it to separate the waste from the recyclable material.  But after sorting, instead of taking the garbage and recycling out to the curb, in China an amazing and entrepreneurial set of activities happened next.

When our housekeeper sorted through the garbage, she pulled out not only what she could sell to recycle (cardboard, glass, Styrofoam, etc), but she also retrieved anything she thought she could repair, re-use or re-sell.  Which brings me to a major difference between China and the US.  The primary focus in China is definitely on re-use, while the major focus here seems to be on recycle.  Nothing that can be fixed or used in an alternative way makes it to a landfill in China, because there are multiple layers of sorting before it goes off to the landfill. 

For example, we lived in an apartment complex.  Our housekeeper sorted through the garbage first, then she took the garbage out into the hallway receptacle.  The maids who cleaned the building and hauled away the trash would go through it a second time.  Once the garbage made its way to the larger apartment complex dumpster, it was sorted through again.  At every single stage, different items were pulled out.  People did a variety of things with these items -- they repaired them, they sold them, they gave them to friends, they kept them for their own homes -- but if there was any use left in them at all, they did not go to the landfill.

So that’s re-use, but what about the recycling, how was it happening?  In America, it leaves the curb and I have very little idea what happens after that.  In China, when our housekeeper collected recyclable items, she sold them to the local “recycling guy”.  

Collecting cardboard for recycling in Shanghai, China.
I don’t know what else to call him, he was a man on a 3-wheel bicycle cart who rode through the neighborhood once or twice a day ringing a cow bell to alert people that he was there.  When people heard him they would come out of their households and sell him their recycling.  The “recycle man” specialized in different materials, so you learned which guy was collecting which material and what his route and time usually was.  After the recycle man purchased and collected a cart full of materials, he rode off to a local business that purchased the recycling.  I don’t know precisely what happened to the Styrofoam, but if the business was cardboard, some of it was re-used right away by companies who were willing to purchase “used” boxes.  The rest of it was sold to a processing plant that turned the cardboard into reusable post-consumer material.  For all the recyclable materials, there was someplace to sell it to, otherwise there would have been no effort to collect it. 

The interesting thing was that the government was nowhere in this system, and recycling wasn’t about saving the planet.  Everything was about necessity, it was about using and re-using the materials that already exist until they literally fell apart.  There were so many activities before it came to recycling.  And when the material was at the recycling stage, the system managed to employ many people and each of those people were able to make a little bit of money along the way.  And from what we observed, the system was highly effective. 


  1. Waste management is a distinct practice from resource recovery which focuses on delaying the rate of consumption of natural resources. The management of wastes treats all materials as a single class, whether solid, liquid, gaseous or radioactive substances, and tried to reduce the harmful environmental impacts of each through different methods.
    Waste Services

  2. We could definitely use more waste removal services in this country. I try to use mine as often as possible. I know that they have a better idea of how to take care of my waste than just putting it in a landfill. Thanks for the added perspective.

  3. The “recycle man” specialised in numerous materials, thus you learned that guy was aggregation that material and what his route and time sometimes was.

    waste management

  4. Wow.
    I'm take a whild guess here and say waste removal in China is quite different from waste removal in Orlando FL !
    Great post.

  5. Nice Post ! Thanks for sharing information about waste clearance and recycling services.


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