Recycling Booms in China

By Janelle Clausen

The United States often chastises China for its environmental nightmares – and for good reason. Chinese smog chokes the lungs and blocks the sun; more than half of China’s the water is polluted and the country produces nearly a third of the world’s waste. But when it comes to recycling, China may soon jump ahead of the U.S.

For now the two are roughly tied. In 2009, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported that that Americans recycled about 34 percent of its 234 million tons of waste. Much of China’s recycling business has been dedicated to global waste processing, so an overall domestic rate could not be found. Thirty percent of plastics, however, are recycled and this is expected to grow.

But now the Chinese government has announced a massive project to recycle 70 percent of its own waste by 2015. By contrast, only California state has a comparable goal in motion: Seventy-five percent by 2020. Unlike China, however, their current recycling rate is over 60 percent.

Given its growing economy and accompanying discharge of garbage (260 million tons annually and rising) though, China’s recycling business will continue growing. A report by BCC research anticipates that the recycling market will grow from $102.8 billion to $156 billion between 2013 and 2018 – a fifty percent rise. It seems profitable. According to Statista, a site of collected statistics, China’s resource recycling industry saw billions in profit back in 2011.

From Beijing to Yangzhou, along the Great Wall and in model villages, garbage and recycling bins come in pairs. Restaurants reuse chopsticks and plates as much as they can. Some hotels pride themselves on degradable material as much as local officials insist they’re environmentally responsible. Small business owners often recycle things that went unsold, such as glass yogurt containers along the South Gong and Drum Hutong. Progressive U.S. cities, such as San Francisco, may be able to brag about similar things, but even green-minded Stony Brook University in suburban Long Island, N.Y., does not have recycling bins on every corner of campus.

Indeed, several entrepreneurs have become billionaires in recycling Chinese refuge. Still, much recycling is done by poor people, many elderly. At one park, for example, I found a 77-year-old woman without family who collected refuse that earned her mere pennies a piece. “I have nothing,” said the woman, who declined to give her name. Then there was the old man outside my air conditioned hotel in Beijing. He sifted through a small mountain of rubbish. I saw many more such recycling scavengers outside my tour bus as it wend through the city.

This was not a pretty sight; but it appeared to be a big part of the reality of recycling in China.

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