BEIJING, China – Chuming Li balances two plastic bottles of juice on a carton of fresh durian as he browses the crowded shelves of his university’s campus grocery store.
“I buy anywhere between 10 to 20 bottles of juice and water per week,” says Li, a 23-year-old computer science PhD candidate at Tsinghua University in Beijing’s Haidian District. “I’ve been buying bottled drinks since I was a young kid.”
Li’s affinity for bottled drinks, much like many other young Chinese who grew up with the convenience of bottled water, juices and soft drinks, reflects a trend in China that has environmentalists nervous and the government scrambling to respond. In the world’s most populous country, widespread consumption of bottled beverages has created concerns about the environmental effects of plastic bottles.
China became the world leader in 2013 for plastic water bottle consumption at over 73 billion bottles per year, according to Euromonitor International, due in part to the country’s rapid urbanization, concern over safe drinking water and intensive marketing by companies such as Coca Cola and Pepsi.
After decades as the world’s recycling dumping ground, China now must deal with its mounting domestic recycling. Experts say that the country’s informal recycling collection system is no match for the rapid rise in consumption. The central government and local officials responded over the past decade with efforts to increase public awareness of the need for recycling and to curb Chinese companies’ recycling of imported materials, but results are mixed.
Serious challenges remain. Environmental activists, corporate leaders and waste experts question whether the Chinese government can change people’s behavior, manage domestic consumption, and minimize environmental damage. And with China closing the door on foreign trash, the rest of the world must decide what to do with its own plastic problem.
Bottled water consumption began here in earnest in the early 2010s, with China overtaking the U.S. as the largest consumer of bottled water by volume in 2013, according to Bloomberg. Since then, the country has seen a huge increase in domestic plastic bottle consumption, from 23.14 million tons in 2014 to an estimated 500 million tons in 2018, and that the consumption of PET plastic in mineral water bottles alone could reach over 2.6 metric tons by 2020 in China, according to some experts. The problem of what to do with bottles is exacerbated by the lack of Chinese people embracing the Western culture of recycling.
Despite China’s growing plastic consumption, this lack of recycling culture means there’s no guarantee that the country’s taste for plastic will be enough to sustain recycling centers handling domestic waste. First, the plastic needs to get to them.
As little as 23 percent of all potentially recyclable materials in China were recycled in 2013, according to the State Council’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), but modest progress has been made. Experts estimate the total is closer 30 percent in 2017, compared to the 45 percent of municipal waste recycled in Germany and 35 percent in the U.S. One leading cause of China’s low recycling rate is that there’s no formal recycling system.
Of the plastics and other recyclables that do make it to domestic recycling centers, the majority are brought there by scavengers, many of them elderly pensioners, who operate in a gray legal area to manually sort waste and recycling found in garbage cans or apartment communities, despite laws against picking through trash. The scavengers then take the materials to the recycling center where they are paid by weight for each material type whether it be plastic, paper or foam packaging.
In the Xiwangzhuang community in Beijing’s Haidian District, 53-year-old Qingyi Zhu has collected recycling for about 10 years. In a good month, Zhu can take home 2,000 to 3,000 yuan by selling the materials he’s collected to recycling centers, but in a bad month he will make less than 1,000 and will look for side jobs to make up the difference.
Over his time collecting rubbish, he’s noticed a decrease in the number of people who recycle — something he attributes to generational differences.
“It’s worse now because there’s been a change in culture,” Zhu says, as he interrupts himself to make chit-chat with older residents of the community. “Back in the day, people were more frugal so they saved up their recycling more to collect the money. Now, the young people just throw it away.”
Despite Zhu’s experience, there are signs that public awareness of the importance of recycling is growing — but changing people’s behavior is another story.
Municipalities such as Beijing began releasing public awareness campaigns focused on recycling in the late 1990s. Mega-cities such as Shanghai and Beijing installed sidewalk trash bins with separate sides for recyclables and non-recyclables, but residents are often unsure how to categorize their waste. Little more has been done to move beyond passive education to policy and action.
Around the 2008 Beijing Olympics, issues such as air pollution and the broader effects of industrial development earned widespread international attention. As government officials continue to address these concerns, recycling and plastic consumption reduction efforts were quietly sidelined.
As pressure from both domestic waste and international imports grew, China’s recycling system was soon overwhelmed, and its reputation as the world’s dumping ground was threatening the nation’s carefully crafted image as an advanced country.
Several years ago, government officials were pressured to act because recycling centers taking in foreign recycling were operating around the clock while domestic recycling programs were ignored, and China’s international image was under constant attack, says Wenjing Lu, an associate professor of solid waste management at Beijing’s Tsinghua University.
“China cannot be the dumping site for the whole world for all of time,” Lu says. “People see we are developed, so we aren’t desperate for these dirty things anymore.”
In mid-2017, the government announced a nearly complete ban on 24 grades of imported solid waste — including plastics. Officials began enforcing it at the start of this year.
China was once the world’s largest recyclables market — in 2016, Chinese recycling manufacturers imported 7.3m metric tons of waste plastics from developed countries, according to Christine Cole, a research fellow in Architecture, Design and the Built Environment at the United Kingdom’s Nottingham Trent University. The U.S. alone exported 1.42m tons of scrap plastics, worth an estimated $495m.
After the ban was implemented on Jan. 1, plastic imports plummeted by 94.4 percent compared to the previous month, according to data released by China’s General Administration of Customs. The effects of the ban are already apparent in countries such as the United States, which relied heavily on China for its recycling and face huge backlogs in their domestic collection centers.
The ban had an immediate effect on Chinese companies dependent on imported trash, said a government official from the Guangxi Environmental Protection Bureau In south China’s Guangxi province, a geographically significant trade region with ports along the South China Sea and a border with Vietnam.
“After the ban, all of the factories I’m familiar with have closed,” the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he’s not authorized to speak to media on the matter, said by email.
It’s still uncertain whether existing Chinese recycling companies or new entrepreneurs can turn China’s haphazard domestic recycling into a successful business model. The Guangxi official thinks the import ban is good news overall because focuses attention on the importance of managing local waste and recycling systems.
While the aim of the ban was to reduce the negative environmental and health impacts of importing foreign waste within China, environmental activists are heralding the ban beyond China as a wakeup call to countries that previously sold their recycling to China.
“Waste exporting countries have for too long been able to take an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach to waste, but in many cases, this is no longer an option,” said Liu Hua, campaigner for Greenpeace East Asia, in an emailed response.
The regulation will serve to decrease international pressure on China to clean up its polluting industries, while increasing pressure on recycling-exporting countries to find alternate avenues for disposal, but concerns remain for activists that instead of decreasing consumption and improving local recycling methods, the world’s oceans will bear the brunt of the regulation’s international effects.
“Plastic pollution is one of the greatest threats facing our oceans,” Hua stated.
One private company, Beijing INCOM Resources Recovery Resourcing Co., Ltd., is both collecting and processing plastic bottles through their Reverse Vending Machines (RVM). The company currently operates 7,000 machines within China. Consumers drop their bottles through slots in the machines, mainly located in subway stations, and then the machine sends money to their mobile payment accounts such as WeChat, or they are given coupons for restaurants such as KFC, based on the weight of each bottle.
“In Beijing, we set more than 5,000 units all over the city, we can recycle about 30 million bottles every year,” Steven Sun, INCOM regional sales manager said by email. “We use our reverse logistics platform to make sure that the bottles we collected could be recycled in a right way … and are sent to the factories who have the formal qualifications and abilities, not to the irregular private factories who may cause secondary pollution.”
China is still grappling with these serious challenges. Can it create a domestic recycling system that can handle the consumption, and can it create a culture among its citizens of sending the bottles to the recycling centers?
Zhu, the scavenger, thinks that maybe money will change people’s attitudes. After all, since the ban went into effect in January, Zhu said he’s seen recyclables prices go up by two-thirds as domestic materials companies look inward to fuel their industries.
Li, the student, also seems to think so.
“When I was young, recycling wasn’t popular, but I see that now it’s becoming a trend,” Li says. “I see a good future for it in China.” ■
Reporting and photos by Sarah Talaat in Beijing, China.