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.

A Canadian In Beijing: Malled

My little dorm room came with a kettle and a cup and a few towels but not much else besides the furniture and some simple bedding. To get through three months, I knew that I’d need a few simple household items. For instance, I didn’t have a bowl or a scrub brush for dishes, nor did I have any dish towels or a good pair of scissors for cutting open packages. I also needed some self-loading pencils for the numerous Chinese characters I’m writing in school, the kinds with built-in erasers for the likewise numerous mistakes that I’ll make writing those very same characters.

Anyway, this is all to say that I needed to go shopping.

The other part of the truth (which may or may not be the bigger part!) is that I had been avoiding doing my laundry and I was completely out of underwear. Rather than hand wash a few pairs to get me through, I decided that I could probably afford to buy a few more pairs. Lazy, I know. I’m such a stereotypic bachelor right now!

With all this in mind, I grabbed my reusable shopping bags and headed to the heart of Wudaokou.

It is really hard to gauge the size and scope of a building’s interior in this city. For instance, the university has a huge canteen. The first time I explored it, I saw a large room and a lot of food being offered, cafeteria-style. The second time I went in, I noticed an upstairs and there I found another large room with separate kiosks of food like at a North American mall. The third time I went in there, I was with fellow students who led me upstairs again but this time we went through a rear door of that same upstairs room. This door looked like a service entrance, so I hadn’t questioned it, but it brought us into a hallway that led to restaurant after restaurant offering various international fare. I was amazed at my terrible sleuthing skills the two times previous.

I feel a little like Alice walking through the looking glass. I have no idea what I’ll find around every corner and I am constantly in awe at the density of sights, smells, sounds and activity here.

So, en route to aforementioned room supplies, I went into the Lotus Center for the second time since arriving. As I was walking around, I suddenly noticed an escalator at the far end of the small, main-floor, shopping complex that I had mistakenly understood to be the entirety of the “Lotus Center.” I went up this escalator and found myself in a giant mall with three levels that offered everything from DVDs to housewares, new shoes to fresh vegetables, cigarettes to shampoo.

Okay then. How did I miss that the first time?

I stood at the top of the first escalator looking around, dumbfounded, and became a bit like a rock in the riverbed of a flowing public. People flowed around and past me as I turned and waited for a relatively quiet moment to photograph the escalator.

Because I have never seen items for sale on an escalator before. The items don’t move but you do. How does that work?

Picture this: you’re the shopper and you think, “hey, maybe I’ll buy that item but I’d like to check out the ingredients first.” Then, after picking it up and realizing that you’d probably be better off without all those unpronounceable contents in your body, you’ve been carried up and away from where it belongs! Stranded at the top or stranded at the bottom with a box of cheap cookies in your hand, what do you do?

Maybe it’s a brilliant idea. Perhaps you’d look at the effort it would take to put it back — You’d have to do the up/down loop in order to be the conscientious shopper who returns an unwanted item to whence it came, after all — and then just throw it in your basket and consider buying it as your penance for being lazy? Go back into the flowing public just to put back a box of cookies? I think not. Besides, at that point in the consideration, you’d likely have talked yourself into wanting them after all! Maybe they’ll be the most delicious thing you’ve ever tasted, you wonder.

Oh how the mind justifies. This is how advertising gets us.

As you can imagine, with these ideas running through my head and so much to take in, I sometimes walk around a bit like I’m in a daze. China makes me move slowly and I get jostled around and bumped into by people left and right — people who are less in a state of wonder and with more of an agenda. This was how it was for me for the remainder of my time in the Lotus Center. My little basket and I wandered wide-eyed through aisle after aisle and my little basket slowly got heavier.

I admit to being tempted by the incredibly low prices of stuff here. I bought my underwear. The women’s version was terrible and came with bows! I ended up buying a four-pack of men’s cotton briefs with some cool designs on them for a whopping 4 kuai (or almost $0.59 a pack — That makes it $0.15 a pair!) Note to self: I am bigger than a men’s medium in China; they’re kinda tight!

And what else did I buy? Well, 96 kuai later and I must admit that I’m not quite sure! I got my school supplies and some letter-writing supplies, some slippers for my cold dorm floor, tea towels, some food products, some water. All in all, it’s easy to say that things are cheap here, but those cheap things eventually cost a lot of money! I know that 80 kuai is only $14 Canadian, but I am aiming to keep this journey within budget and so I found myself scratching my head.

Did I really need the beer shampoo just because it was made of beer?

Maybe I can blame it on the televisions? At the end of every second aisle, a television set with non-stop advertising easily catches a shopper’s gaze. At least, it caught mine! I watched a few ads just for entertainment’s sake, but didn’t buy the products being advertised. Still, perhaps I was subliminally affected into believing that “buying is good” and “shopping is healthy” and “I need more stuff.”

Those discounts are alluring. I couldn’t resist.

At the checkout counter, I dutifully waited my turn and have become quite good at saying “wo bu yao daizi, xie xie,” which means: “I don’t want a plastic bag, thank you.” Everything is put in plastic here unless actively requested otherwise. They look at me strangely but accept my weird “foreign” request without much dispute. Lately, I’ve also starting following up my request with: “shijie you tai duo de daizi.” This means: “The world has too many plastic bags.”

The last time I said that, I actually got a smile.

This is a picture of my checkout line among about twenty others. If only my little camera could capture the panoramic of these views to show the whole scale of such experiences. You’ll just have to take my word for it!