The Two Cultures, Recycling Edition

Here’s something that I’ve learned: the world has two cultures of recycling.

In the developed world (Europe and North America, in particular), recycling is a moral act, done – primarily – as expatiation for consumption. Little to no consideration is given to the cost of recycling; and, on those rare occasions when economics enter the discussion, they often do so because an entity – say, a city recycling program – suddenly finds itself in need of a subsidy to continue running a government-chartered recycling program. The average citizen rarely considers the economic value or cost of his or her sorted paper, cans, and bottles; sorting such materials is a civic duty.

Meanwhile, in the developing world, recycling is an economic act, done primarily for income. Little to no consideration is given to the environmental benefits of recycling; on those rare occasions when the environment enters the discussion, it’s a side-benefit, often utilized as a marketing ploy by companies seeking more valuable recyclables for less money. The average citizen (say, in Shanghai), rarely considers the environmental benefit of selling his or her paper, cans, and bottles to the local scrap peddlers. Almost to a person, he or she is concerned with obtaining market value from an item that has value – to someone else.

I’ve written about this topic in other places, and I’ll be writing more in the coming year. For now, though, I’d like to repeat a story: a good friend, from Hunan, likes to recount how people from her small town warn school age children that – if they don’t study hard – they’ll end up as scrap peddlers, picking through trash to find value in other people’s garbage. That is, in rural Hunan, recycling is what you do if you’ve failed at everything else.

Today I thought of that story, the people in that small village, and what they might have thought about this Wednesday event at the University of Minnesota (as reported by the Star Tribune):

After a garbage truck dumped its full load in front of Coffman Union, student volunteers pounced on the pile — about 10 feet tall by 20 feet wide — and pulled out all of the material that could have been recycled but ended up in the trash instead.

The smelly demonstration was part of an effort to increase recycling on campus

Below, a screen capture from the Star Tribune’s accompanying video:


A couple of points, here. First, I’m willing to bet a sizable sum of money that you’ll never, ever find a group of Chinese university students digging through a 6 ton pile of garbage (at their college, or elsewhere). I could give a long list of reasons, but the one that I’d like to focus on is this: trash sorting is a job in China, and it’s one that Chinese students don’t want. It’s not about virtue; it’s about work, status, and money. In Shanghai, for example, the city is dotted with trash dumps that employ hundreds of migrants, and poor locals, who sift through the municipal waste stream in search of value, and thus recycle it to a degree unimaginable and unattainable in developed countries. Below, an image of a small-scale facility along these lines, along the Li River, in Guilin:


In China, and other developing countries, the only reason that anybody would do this kind of work is pretty simple: they need money.

I bring this up because, over the last month I’ve fielded more than a dozen phone calls from reporters worldwide seeking explanations for why China has stopped buying recyclables out of Europe and North America. And the one thing that I’ve found difficult to get across – in some cases, nearly impossible – is that China isn’t interested in purchasing worthless raw materials from the developed world, even though those materials might have been collected and sorted with the most noble of environmental intentions.

Of course, it’s not only China that feels this way. Processors of recyclables in the developed world, too, have stopped buying, and they’ve stopped for the same reasons: they don’t need any more raw materials.

In any case, it’s commonplace for environmentalists in the developed world to demand that China begin to think more “green.” Fair enough, I suppose. But I think that there’s an equally good argument to be made that – in regard to recycling, at least – the developed world would be well-advised to starting thinking about recycling in terms that aren’t moral.

More Shanghai Scrap thoughts on this topic, here.


  1. The irony of the UMN stunt is that the more they recycle the lower the price of what they recycle and the less demand there will be for what they recycle. Better to start a campaign to lower consumption of paper on campus than the amount of paper that’s being recycled. Dumb and naive.

  2. Well, that’s dedication at least… It reminds me of the self – flagellation rituals of certain religious sects.

    Actually, a landfill isn’t the worst place for recyclables. If we ever need the stuff we can dig it up and use it–we know right where it is. An incinerator might be even better. Recycling’s biggest sin is that it is energy-intensive. The water used to wash recyclables, the extra collection routes, the time, energy and lost productivity of people at every step of the chain–every step consumes material and energy that could otherwise be saved. Since only around 2% of the oil we consume goes into tangible goods, like all that recyclable plastic, and the other 98% is burned for energy, its very hard to make a case that focusing on conserving, reusing or recycling that 2% is going to have much of an effect on the environment. Better to drive less.

  3. You’re right that if the muni recycling programs thought more like businesses and less like moral crusades there wouldn’t be warehouses jammed with cardboard right now with nowhere to go. But those programs were really important in creating the global recycling industry over the last decade. We needed those surpluses. So it’s not so simple.

  4. Adam,

    I just finished reading “Rubbish: The Archaeology of Garbage” by William Rathje of University of Arizona’s Garbage Project & former Atlantic editor Cullen Murphy. It’s a great book, though out of date now (written back in the early 90s). Do you know what happened to the Garbage Project? Any chance of some garbage archaeology getting done in China?

  5. Dave – That book is a classic, and a favorite. I’m surprised it’s not more widely read, even now.

    I have no idea if the project is ongoing, still, though I seem to recall hearing something along those lines a couple of years ago.

    A Chinese version would be difficult, I think, in large part because Chinese trash dumps are mostly filled with food waste. And what isn’t food tends to get picked out by the recyclers. Chinese simply don’t throw away as much “stuff” as folks in developed countries. Instead, they re-use – and re-use, I think, is the enemy of garbage archeology.

    But that’s an awfully interesting point, and I’m going to give that some thought. There must be something that somebody could do along those lines.

  6. @Adam: I think that doing garbage archaeology in China might be easier because of recyclers. Simply pay them to deliver garbage bags to an archaeologists table first, and then let them take the recyclables after you’re done. Recruit them!

    Other related questions I had were:

    * How much does China use incinerators? What about landfills as opposed to dumps?

    * What about all that pottery? Has anyone done any maps of Beijing or Shanghai showing how much land elevation is due to pottery dumping, like the flattening and expanding of Manhattan?

  7. Dave – That’s an interesting proposal, and not so far from the realm of possibility. Various levels of gov’t have been talking, for years, about recruiting the recyclers into municipal programs. I know of a couple of places where that’s starting to happen (no guarantee that it’ll work), and I suppose it would then be possible to do what you’re suggesting. Speaking for myself, I’d love to see the archeological breakdown.

    China incinerates less than 5% of its trash, though that number will grow over the coming years as various provinces build incinerators with electrical co-generation capacity. I think there’s something in the last 5 year plan to encourage that, and I know of a couple such plants currently under construction.

    In China, dumps are really way posts on the way to landfills. All those organics – the food waste, primarily – is landfilled. Much of that could be burned for energy in co-generation plants.

    I emailed a knowledgeable friend in re to the potter issue, and this is how he responded:

    “… [I] don’t know of any dump pits nor have read references to such. I do know that the debris fields surrounding kiln sites can be several meters thick but most of the sites were abandoned long ago and the site and surrounding countryside are now greened and pastoral, quite a contrast to the industrialization of the Song and Yuan dynasties when fires from the kilns burned day and night.”

  8. Garbage is fascinating. If you want to see a microcosmic example of the general attitude of “disposal” in China, you should check out the inside of a desk in a Chinese high school. It can be startling.
    We’ve gotten into the habit of just leaving unwanted things outside our door. Somehow they disappear, leading us to the discovery of garbage ninjas.

  9. not only in the developed countries.i also think china can extend their hand and oppen up gabbage recycling industrieseven in developing countrieslike my home country Kenya.were fade up gabbage which realy ruined our environment and our health.

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