Shanghai Scrap has a great analysis of the differences in mentality between recycling in China and recycling in the West. While in Europe and North America recycling is a moral act done almost as a penance for overconsumption, in the developing world it’s done because it’s economical.
The point is especially important to understand as China’s appetite for waste materials from developed countries slows.
In China, and other developing countries, the only reason that anybody would do this kind of thing is pretty simple: they need money.
I bring this up because, over the last month I’ve fielded more than a dozen phone calls from reporters worldwide seeking explanations for why China has stopped buying recyclables out of Europe and North America. And the one thing that I’ve found difficult to get across – in some cases, nearly impossible – is that China isn’t interested in purchasing worthless raw materials from the developed world, even though those materials might have been collected and sorted with the most noble of environmental intentions.
…it’s commonplace for environmentalists in the developed world to demand that China begin to think more “green.” Fair enough, I suppose. But I think that there’s an equally good argument to be made that – in regard to recycling, at least – the developed world would be well-advised to starting thinking about the act in economic terms rather than moral terms.
The problem is that recycling doesn’t make much sense economically to the developed world right now. As much as we firmly believe it is of benefit for us to stop filling landfills in the long-term, in the short- and mid-term, it an expense that can only be supported as a “moral act.”
Thanks to all that U.S. and European training, we always end up feeling a little guilty when we don’t recycle, so we do what we can here: tie up all our bottles in bags separate from regular waste and put them out by the curb. We like to think it makes the lives of those who do have to do this for a living a little easier.
Also on the Shanghaiist:
E-waste recycling center opens in Changning District