A Canadian in Beijing: Recyling = Reincarnation

My room comes with a fantastic windowsill that is large enough to sit on. I often sit there and watch the basketball games while eating lunch or dinner. The ledge stretches to both walls on either side of the window and also serves as great shelf space. On the left side, I keep my non-perishable food items. Behind the curtain, it reminds me of my own pantry at home which is separated by the kitchen by a large curtain there too.

I have been using the right-hand side as my recyclables mortuary.

People told me that there were no recycling facilities in Beijing when I first arrived. I was horrified. Coming from Canada where recycling programs are present in even the smallest rural communities, I couldn’t bear the thought of just chucking out my water bottles and other plastics, glass and used batteries. It actually makes me feel nauseous and sick to my stomach. I even feel that way when I see other people chucking their recyclables no matter where I am and I often retrieve stray bottles from garbage bins and put them in my blue box at home.

So, instead of resignation, I started collecting my recyclables and keeping them in my room. I didn’t have a solution, but I was buying some time. After a while, the pile got much larger than this one and I realized that I had to figure something out or else I’d be overrun by empties before too long.

I asked Traci about recycling in Beijing. She is my American friend who has lived here for thirteen years and who has significant insight into this city. She told me that the program here is quite “organic” and unofficial. “There are bins downtown (as per the above photo) in which recyclables are supposed to go,” she said, “but they are generally taken to the same waste facilities and they aren’t sorted.” Unless they’re claimed first by the people of Beijing who make their living exchanging recyclables for money.

My interest was piqued.

Traci asked me if I’d ever seen elderly people sorting through the garbage. I had. She told me that many people in the city go around and take recyclables from the bins and load them up on their bicycles and ride them to depots where they get about 5 mao per plastic water bottle (less than 1 cent). But ten of those make 1 kuai and, as you may have noticed by my previous posts, one can eat a meal in this city for just a few kuai. Those water bottles would indeed add up to many meals.

This bin seems more honest to me and I found it at a neighbouring (rather ritzy) hotel complex. One side asks for organic waste and the other is for non-organic waste. If recycling isn’t actually picked up by the city and recycled, at least having people put their organic waste into one side is a kinder solution. That way, those who do pick through the trash don’t have to negotiate as many rotting banana peels as they exhume the recyclables, saving them from their useless fate in an urban dump.

Traci also told me that if I look carefully that I may see piles of recyclables beside the bins in separate bags. These are placed by citizens who know that there are people collecting and who want to make their recyclables available to them without their having to dig them out of other waste. I started to look for these separate bags and I definitely noticed them leaning against trash bins and filled solely with plastic or glass bottles. In Traci’s case, she can just put them outside of her apartment door (as residents generally do) and they’re gone by the morning.

The next day, I bagged up my empty water bottles and headed to the market for some snacks. I passed a public garbage bin and I put them with the other bags of recyclables that were leaning against it. Ten minutes later, I walked by the bin again on my way back home. The bin was still full of waste but those bags of recyclables were gone.

I felt immediately relieved. I’m so grateful to know an English-speaking, Chinese-fluent, long-time Beijing resident. Thank you Traci! My conscience felt lighter and I had finally cleaned up the plastic graveyard from my room.

Isn’t recycling a bit like reincarnation? I suppose so! May those bottles enjoy a new life.

There are also people who collect old and broken electronics, cardboard boxes, rubber tires, etc. They go around to businesses and pay a few mao for the opportunity to collect the company’s waste. They then stack up the items on their wide-backed bicycles and move on. At the end of the day, these bikes are laden and full and I have noticed that they are all heading north from Wudaokou. I learned that there are several depots in that direction.

Ah-hah! I’ve been trying to figure out why these bikes are so full and where they’re going! My confusion has now been replaced by understanding, like a cultural puzzle piece that now has found its place. This urban picture is becoming clearer to these foreign eyes and I’m picking up new pieces every day.

On the topic of batteries, a few days later I noticed this bin in my building’s lobby. I stopped and read it more carefully and realized that a battery recycling facility was just in my doorway! As these are hard to find in Canada (though not impossible), I was shocked and grateful at once. I will be taking my batteries downstairs on my way out today.

(And yes, I’m also on the hunt for some good rechargeable batteries this weekend to reduce my waste all the more. I brought my charger but my old reusable batteries no longer have any life in them. Time for some new ones.)

All in all, I’m starting to “get it” and it feels wonderful. One can be conscientious even in a city of great waste and pollution. People are resourceful. It’s great to see that where official solutions are not in place, unofficial solutions thrive. It is reinforcing my belief that there is a movement to make this world a better place in every context, we just have to seek it out and understand its path.

Happy Earth Day, 2007.