Talking Trash: An Examination of Recycling and Solid Waste Management Policies, Economies, and Practices in Beijing

Article excerpt


Typically, the linear relationship between the generation of municipal solid waste and economic development breaks down after several decades of strong GDP growth. However, China has not been able to reduce refuse generation as GDP has increased. China's municipal solid waste generation was 67,700,000 tons in 1990 and reached 140,000,000 tons in 1998, increasing, along with GDP, at 10% annually (Figure 1)(Dong et al. 2000). With the continuation of rapid economic development, industrialization, and urbanization, there is no question that the country may bear one of the heaviest solid waste management burdens in the world.


This paper will focus upon analyzing the practices and policies that relate to consumption, recycling and waste disposal in urban China. Much of the material in this study was collected during a research trip to Beijing in the summer of 2001. To understand the waste management system and its associated strengths and weaknesses, we conducted interviews with government officials, garbage pickers, recycling stand owners, recycling market workers, scholars of environmental engineering, and employees of various companies. Visits were made to collection sites of recyclables, transfer stations and landfills.

An extensive history of solid waste since Republican period and a discussion of the composition of solid waste comprise the background section of this paper. In the management section, the current practices of reusing, reducing, and recycling wastes are outlined, covering the entire collection chain of recyclables. A brief description of recyclables processing and the practices of solid waste disposal completes the section. A discussion of implications for the future is presented in the last section.

Today's economic imagery of consumption-based growth with few environmental constraints is not the only way that economic development, modernization, or industrialization has been historically experienced in China. In Republican era Beijing, the economy functioned without creating a dominant culture of consumption and disposability. In early Socialist era Beijing, industrialization began to take off, yet the daily habits of consumption and disposal were very dissimilar from those found in contemporary capitalist economies. In both the Republican and Socialist eras, the public could not afford to waste material goods.

In the Republican period collectors roamed the streets, beating rhythms and chanting out calls for residents to bring out their "stuff." Relatively little Republican era "junk" passed through what we today think of as "recycling" processes--shredding, melting, or mashing into raw materials to then be used to manufacture new commodities. Rather, most folks in the Republican era practiced what Susan Strasser (1999) refers to as the "stewardship of objects;" what was broken, if it could not be repaired, would be used bricoluer fashion for some other purpose (cloth scraps for mops, etc.) Recycling in the Republican era was thus an intrinsic aspect of a wide variety of handicrafts and forms of household labor. Our definition of recycling activities in this era must, therefore, encompass a whole range of activities and crafts involving repair and mending. People who depended on recycling for their subsistence--the rag-tag army of junk collectors, the scrap merchants, second-hand goods sellers, and the thousands of independent craftspeople depending on their refurbished goods--comprised a sizable proportion of Beijing's populace. Indeed, Madeliene Yue Dong has demonstrated that this array of employments was an indispensable part of Republican Beijing's economic and cultural life. Dong has eloquently argued that the experience of modernity in Republican Beijing could be broadly construed as intimately linked to these "recycling" practices (Dong 1999).

The Socialist revolution was supposed to change much of this. …